Armed with grim statistics, experts and activists are mobilizing this week to demand expanded federal efforts — including more money and tougher oversight — to reverse a recent rise in the number of children dying from abuse and neglect.
Child-welfare advocates gathering for a rally and conference in Washington say America should be embarrassed to have a child-abuse death rate far higher than other wealthy democracies. They cite the latest federal figures showing that an estimated 1,760 U.S. children died from abuse and neglect in 2007 — up 35 percent from 2001.
"Child abuse and neglect are national problems that require national solutions," said Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund. "That means federal lawmakers must work with states to address what causes it, be more consistent in how data about it are shared, and increase support for the agencies that work to stop it."
The recession is inflicting a further hit, with many states imposing budget cuts that affect child welfare programs. Abuse deaths are up sharply in some areas — authorities in Nevada's Clark County, home to Las Vegas, have tallied 37 abuse deaths so far this year, compared to 18 in all of 2008.
Report: Inadequate resources
Every Child Matters is releasing a report Wednesday, a day ahead of the two-day child abuse conference, contending that inadequate resources are stretching state child-protection agencies too thin to properly serve at-risk children and their families.
The report — which brings together data compiled by a variety of federal, state and private agencies — says per capita spending on child protection varies widely by state, as does the diligence of state agencies in collecting statistics on abuse fatalities.
"The differences between the states are so vast that there's got to be a federal intervention that's stronger than present or these children will continue to die at these high rates," Petit said.
The report cited a survey by UNICEF in 2003 that calculated the U.S. child abuse death rate as 3 times higher than Canada's and 11 times higher than Italy's.
Among the report's recommendations:
- Up to $5 billion in additional federal funds to support child protection services.
- Adoption of national standards for child protection, to be mandatory for states accepting federal funds.
- Tougher, more consistent rules for how states collect and report data on child maltreatment deaths. The latest federal report on such deaths lacked data from four states, and Petit says other states may not include some fatalities that are in fact caused by abuse or neglect.
- A federal/state public education campaign to encourage reporting of child abuse and neglect.
Every Child Matters was organizing a Wednesday rally at the Capitol with support from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.., and stars from NBC's "Law and Order: SVU" — which often deals with family violence in its plots.
Sen Casey: Epidemic of abuse
Casey said he hopes the week's activities will help "shine a light" on what he calls an epidemic of child abuse.
"As much of the frontline fight against child abuse takes place at the state level, the federal government must continue to work with states to provide resources," he said. "Especially as budgets are tightened, we must provide states with adequate levels of support."
However, the new report's recommendations were not universally welcomed.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said any additional federal spending would be better used to support at-risk families so fewer children would need to be removed from their homes in the first place. He contends that the number of child abuse deaths — while regrettable — is a tiny fraction of the number of children removed from their homes unnecessarily.
"Their proposal amounts to stealing $3 billion to $5 billion that might go to prevention, family preservation and helping to ameliorate poverty and spending it instead on investigating families and taking away children," Wexler wrote on in a commentary on the report.
Wexler agrees that many states should be spending more on child welfare.
"But all states need to spend smarter," he added. "The net of voluntary help to families should be cast wide. ... The net of coercive intervention into families should be narrow."
One goal of this week's conference is to press Congress to be generous with funds when it soon takes up reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which provides federal money to states to address abuse and neglect.
"We need a bigger investment in case workers," said Rebecca Myers of the National Association of Social Workers, one of the conference participants. "Caseloads in some jurisdictions are as high as 60 or more, even though national standards recommend 12 or fewer cases per worker."
According to the American Bar Association, child protective services agencies received nearly 3.2 million reports of child maltreatment in 2007 but were able to screen only 62 percent of them for investigation.
"In short, our nation's child welfare system is stretched far beyond capacity," the ABA said.