WASHINGTON — A federal commission wants the states to examine all child abuse and neglect fatalities from the past five years as part of a national strategy to end such deaths.
The commission also said all reports of neglect or abuse of children under age 3 should receive responses, rather than some being screened out, with the fastest response times required for children under age 1.
These recommendations are several of the most urgent identified by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in a final report released on Thursday.
An estimated 1,500 to 3,000 U.S. children die each year from abuse or neglect, according to the commission.
The commission said the new efforts should be fully funded by the states and Congress but reached no final consensus on how much money would be necessary. One scenario calls for a $1 billion increase in funding for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as a starting point.
Overall, the report calls for a national strategy that emphasizes improved leadership and accountability, better research and data, and enhanced multidisciplinary support for families.
“In short, now is the time to move away from old patterns and adopt a new course of action to prevent child maltreatment deaths. Now is the time for a 21st century strategy to protect children and protect families,” the report said.
The commissioners said in the report that it’s impossible right now to pinpoint the number of children who die because of abuse and neglect each year, raising the need for better data collection and reporting. They also said they found only one example of an evidence-based practice that curbs fatalities: the Nurse-Family Partnership, a home visiting program.
“Had we found strong evidence for certain approaches, we would have recommended expansion of these programs and likely achieved unanimity among Commissioners.
Instead, we built our recommendations around the most promising approaches we found. Questions related to how effective these approaches will be when applied elsewhere, and the potential benefits of funding these approaches, resulted in lack of consensus for this report as a whole,” wrote the commission’s chair David Sanders, an executive vice president for Casey Family Programs, in a letter introducing the report.
The two dissenting commissioners, Cassie Statuto Bevan and Patricia M. Martin, submitted their own sharply critical reports, highlighting where they disagree with the recommendations.
Bevan, child welfare fellow at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania, said the commission missed the opportunity to make a real difference for children.
“Injecting more money into the current failed child protection funding streams, or into services that are currently ineffective or duplicative will not save the lives of very young children,” she wrote.
Martin, who published her dissent independently from the original report because she worried about how it might be edited, called the report a failure, slamming both the process and many of the commission’s recommendations.
“The Consenting Report reads like a tabloid or infomercial relying on sensationalism to convince Congress and the Administration to eschew their good sense,” she wrote.
Other immediate steps recommended by the commission include:
- better, real-time sharing of information between partners such as child protective services and law enforcement;
- a requirement that child death reviews teams also look at life-threatening injuries caused by maltreatment in order to receive CAPTA funding;
- programs such as Medicaid or home visiting programs should focus on reducing abuse and neglect fatalities; and
- minimum standards for which professionals are mandatory reporters.
The report also called for elevating the federal Children’s Bureau to report directly to the Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department; for states to develop comprehensive child fatality plans, and for Congress to conduct joint committee hearings on child safety, provide needed funding and encourage innovation.
The commissioners also included specific recommendations for three groups of children at high risk for fatalities: children known to the child protection agencies today who are at high risk, American Indian/Alaska Native children and African-American children.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, sponsor of the Protect Our Kids Act, welcomed the new report.
“The report provides a modest map to prevent child abuse, but we need the political drive to steer these changes into law and avoid lurching from one tragedy to another. With more state and federal leadership, we should provide the resources to build better coordinated partnerships that give vulnerable children hope,” he said in a news release.
John Sciamanna, vice president of public policy at the Child Welfare League of America, said the report is promising and should encourage discussion about how to respond to — and, critically — prevent child abuse.
“I think it gives us an opportunity for some needed attention on the front end of child welfare,” he said
Sciamanna also said that many of the pieces depend on one another, and he wouldn’t want to see new child welfare mandates that do not acknowledge that dynamic or come without funding.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and frequent critic of the commission in the leadup to the report’s publication, said reviewing cases and screening more reports of alleged abuse and neglect would do more harm than good by overwhelming caseworkers and traumatizing families.
“All that they are recommending is the same lousy system — only bigger,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators also weighed in, with support for the report.
AAP President Benard Dryer emphasized the importance of resources that prevent child maltreatment, which can affect children for a lifetime.
“Adverse childhood experiences, including abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, parental substance abuse, parental mental health problems, and poverty are risk factors for maltreatment and contribute to lifelong negative health implications for children experiencing them,” he said in a news release.
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This story has been updated.