Lawmakers Briefed on Abuse

Joan Levy Zlotnik “Child welfare is at the heart of the social work profession,” said Joan Levy Zlotnik of the Social Work Policy Institute.

NASW was among the presenters at a Capitol Hill briefing that called for greater attention to the rise in child abuse fatalities.

Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters Education Fund and an NASW member, said that despite the best efforts to stop child maltreatment, the U.S. continues to fall short of protecting its youngest citizens. Citing federal data, he said 10,440 children are known to have died from abuse and neglect between 2000 and 2007. The 2009 National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect suggests that figure is increasing.

Earlier this year, NASW, the Every Child Matters Education Fund, the National Children’s Alliance and the National District Attorneys Association ran advertisements in Capitol Hill newspapers that urged Congress to address the maltreatment fatalities of innocent children.

A corresponding report, titled “We Can Do Better,” outlines the issue and offers suggestions for improvement.

At the congressional briefing, Petit said participating organizations are jointly asking Congress to hold hearings on child abuse fatalities, provide emergency funds to stop state cuts in child protection services and to adopt a national strategy to prevent child abuse. Those organizations are: Every Child Matters Education Fund; NASW; the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse; the National Children’s Alliance; and the National Center for Child Death Review.

“There hasn’t been a debate on this in Congress in a long time,” he said. He added that his office has also been in contact with the Obama administration to promote the effort.

Michael Petit Michael Petit of Every Child Matters said that despite the best efforts to stop child maltreatment, the U.S. continues to fall short.

Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of the NASW Foundation’s Social Work Policy Institute, spoke at the briefing. She said social work training is a vital component to successful child protection service outcomes. “Child welfare is at the heart of the social work profession,” she said. “A skilled and stable child welfare workforce is critical to providing effective services.”

Zlotnik said research shows that education, especially a social work degree paired with special training in child welfare, is vital. However, nationally, less than 40 percent of child welfare workers have social work degrees and in many states the figure is less than 20 percent, she explained.

Front-line child protective service workers face several challenges, she continued. Besides low salaries, they face safety risks, lack of access to technology and high caseloads.

“Too often, large caseloads and an unsupportive work environment lead to high turnover,” Zlotnik said. “Ensuring a supportive working environment helps our child welfare workers do their job and demonstrates that, ultimately, we care about the well-being of children and families.”

She said the workforce needs to be trained to make culturally responsive decisions and this can be aided by providing culture competency training.

“Making sure the child welfare workforce is culturally competent and has the prerequisite knowledge and skills are essential to maintaining the community’s trust that the system is truly about the welfare of children and families rather than about enforcing discriminatory and unnecessary interventions.”

Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, said another roadblock to successful child abuse prevention is the fact that confidentiality laws prevent agencies from exchanging information related to child welfare between states. This impedes the ability to keep track of cases that may help prevent abuse or death.

“We need to work together and be willing to share information,” she said. “Model protocols are needed.”

Elizabeth Anne Hoffman, supervisor of the Safe and Stable Families Program in the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Health and Human Services, agreed that confidentiality laws impede social service officials from obtaining vital information across state lines.

“We need a national child information system,” she said.

Theresa Convington is the director of the National Center for Child Death Review, which provides training and consultation to state and local child death review programs throughout the U.S. She said states need emergency relief funds to maintain their child protective programs.

“States can’t do this alone,” she said, adding that a more precise and uniform method for reporting child maltreatment deaths is needed. “We know our rates are undercounted.”

The congressional briefing, which was sponsored in part by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also featured Suzanna Tiapula of the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. She said there is plenty of data that supports how to prevent child abuse, but lawmakers need to make a choice to implement the solutions.

Petit said Every Child Matters will continue its campaign to have lawmakers investigate and develop a national strategy for combating maltreatment deaths and to help stop abuse and neglect in the first place.

“The kids can’t wait,” he said.