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What Will It Take to End Child Abuse Fatalities in the United States?
By Kimberly Day, MSW

In recent months, Americans have been inundated with news about child abuse tragedies. Several high profile cases have made national headlines, including the Casey Anthony trial in Florida, the Marchella Pierce case in New York City, and the gruesome story of Nubia Barahona in Florida that detailed serious injuries inflicted on the child’s twin brother. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

In the United States, a child is abused or neglected every 36 seconds, and, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), only 40% of abused children with substantiated cases receive services. More alarming is the number of child fatalities that result from abuse and neglect – with researchers believing there are nearly seven child abuse and neglect deaths every day in America—some 2,500 per year.1

The unfortunate truth about child abuse and neglect deaths is how common they are. Yet the scope of the problem attracts little attention from our national leaders or the national media, who tend to focus on the details of individual cases rather than the systemic issues that often allow these tragedies to occur. Even during April, which is declared National Child Abuse Prevention Month each year by the president, organizations and individuals dedicated to ending child abuse and neglect continue to experience difficulties raising the awareness necessary to bring about needed improvements.

Every day, the media tell horrible stories of abused or neglected children who have suffered at the hands of a perpetrator, oftentimes a trusted relative or friend. The media and other commentators on the stories often start by trying to decide where the finger of blame should be pointed: Was law enforcement to blame? Was it the child welfare agency’s fault? While the focus is on who should take the blame for the avoidable deaths of so many children, little attention goes to addressing what systemic changes need to be made.

Instead of pointing fingers, the real questions should be, what national strategies must be instituted for change to take effect in child protective services across the country, and how can child abuse deaths be prevented?

How Can We Stop These Preventable Deaths?
This is the primary question raised by social workers and numerous children’s advocacy groups, including the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths (NCECAD). The NCECAD was formed in response to a collective concern about the escalating number of child maltreatment deaths in the United States and is comprised of five organizations: the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the National District Attorneys Association, the National Children’s Alliance, the National Center for Child Death Review, and the Every Child Matters Education Fund.

The NASW is involved because social workers understand firsthand the need for a bigger and broader response to child abuse from the general population, as well as from teachers, doctors, nurses, recreation staff, and neighbors who see children who are at risk every day.

In 2009, the NCECAD brought together child welfare experts from across the country at the Summit to End Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths in Washington, DC. This three-day Summit resulted in a list of recommendations for the child welfare system and the agencies with which the systems interact. Included in the recommendations were expanded prevention services for at-risk families; attention to workforce issues, including decreasing high caseloads and increasing the qualifications of child protection workers; a national strategy for better coordination of law enforcement and child protective services; changes to the current confidentiality laws associated with child abuse and neglect deaths; and increased funding for child protective services on a national level.

With the goal of seeing their recommendations implemented, the NCECAD has worked for the last year and a half to raise awareness on a national level and garner attention from Congress. On April 5, the coalition cohosted a congressional staff briefing on Capitol Hill to provide information on child abuse deaths. The coalition’s celebrity spokesperson, Tamara Tunie, an actress on the TV program Law and Order: SVU, delivered a petition containing the signatures of more than 8,000 Americans asking for a hearing on the issue. During the briefing, Congressman David Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced that he would call for a hearing on child abuse fatalities to be held early this summer.

What Will It Take to Decrease Child Fatalities?
Social workers and other professionals working in the child welfare system can advocate for a national strategy to address the issue of extensive child abuse and neglect deaths in our country. Currently, child welfare systems operate independently in each state and even county to county. Variations in policy and capacity among states and child protection offices may help determine whether children live or die. And for the many children who die before their family comes into contact with the child protection system, society needs to take more responsibility for the prevention of child maltreatment.

Joan Levy Zlotnik, PhD, ACSW, director of the NASW’s Social Work Policy Institute, says that “underresourced child protection agencies are challenged today because families’ needs for services are increasing just as states are cutting back on funding for services. Prevention and early intervention are critical.”

The NCECAD asserts that American children should be safe in their own homes regardless of where they live. States also count and report child abuse data differently, leaving the actual number of abused children and child abuse- and neglect-related fatalities unknown.

However, a factor positively impacting the safety of children within a jurisdiction is the implementation of protocol ensuring that civil and criminal proceedings are closely coordinated. The combined professional knowledge of multidisciplinary teams, which bring together social workers, law enforcement, prosecutors, child protection services, and other child advocacy experts, leads to better outcomes for child victims and higher prosecution rates. Unfortunately, these teams are often restricted in what they can share by confidentiality laws.

The coalition recommends the federal government, led by the U.S. Department of Justice and HHS, adopt a model protocol that ensures law enforcement and child protection services are working together to achieve a common goal. This coordinated effort should include information sharing that is currently hindered by restrictive confidentiality laws. Originally intended to protect living child victims from publicity, confidentiality laws have become a hindrance to professionals working to save children. In addition, these strict laws often result in a lack of public understanding of child abuse and neglect fatalities.

Although each of the recommendations mentioned above contributes to the end goal of decreasing child abuse and neglect deaths, it will be impossible to make a true impact without necessary funding for child protective services. Current levels of federal spending are far below the level needed to protect all children at imminent risk of harm, with $3 billion to $5 billion in additional funds required to ensure that all reports of child abuse receive a response and provide families with necessary public health and social services for at-risk children.

If federal funding expands, states should ensure that child protective workers and other frontline personnel have decreased caseloads and more opportunities for training. This, in turn, would lead to an overall enhancement of the field and greater professional retention. In consideration of expanded federal spending, states should be required to adopt national standards drawn from existing best practices and policies for protecting our children.

The U.S. government must develop a broad national strategy for curbing child abuse deaths. The coalition is currently calling for a National Commission on Child Abuse Deaths in America.

As April draws to a close, keep child abuse prevention a priority all year long and visit the NCECAD website at www.endchildabusedeaths.org  to learn more about the problem and what the public can do to assist and save our children from avoidable deaths. Social workers can help the coalition’s efforts by being advocates for child abuse prevention efforts in their community. They can also help respond to sensational news stories that oversimplify issues surrounding a child’s death. Grassroots education is critical to system reform.

— Kimberly Day, MSW, is coordinator of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths.


1. Every Child Matters Education Fund. America’s most under-covered social crisis?: Child abuse and neglect fatalities vs. other more widely reported causes of death. December 14, 2010. Available at: http://www.everychildmatters.org/storage/documents/pdf/coalition/121410chart.pdf