Advocates: More Child Abuse Resources Needed

Patrick KennedyRep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., calls for increased federal spending to reduce child abuse and neglect deaths.

October 2009 was a busy month for child welfare advocates.

Nationwide, they observed the second annual Step Up for Kids Week, Oct. 5-9. The public awareness campaign, sponsored by the Every Child Matters Education Fund and co-sponsored by NASW, aims to get policymakers to shift spending priorities toward families and children.

Many national leaders in child protection, law enforcement and education joined policymakers in Washington for the "We Can Do Better" child abuse and neglect deaths summit, Oct. 22-23.

Ahead of the summit, ECMEF unveiled a report with some disconcerting statistics it hopes will stir politicians to action. According to the report, between 2001 and 2007 there was a 35 percent increase in the number of children in the United States who died from abuse and neglect (1,300 in 2001 and 1,760 in 2007). Over that seven-year span 10,440 children died; however, the report indicates that the actual number of child fatalities due to abuse and neglect is likely as much as 50 percent higher.

"Child abuse and neglect are national problems that require national solutions," ECMEF President Michael Petit said at an Oct. 21 rally on Capitol Hill that coincided with the release of the report. "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."

Petit is a social worker who has been deputy director of the Child Welfare League of America and commissioner of human services for the state of Maine.

NASW's director of external relations, Rebecca Myers, also spoke at the rally. She said more investment is needed to improve working conditions, salary and benefits for child welfare workers, many of whom are social workers.

"Too often, large caseloads and unsupportive work environments lead to high employee turnover, hindering attainment of key safety and permanency outcomes for children," said Myers. "... For the health of our families and our communities, we owe these workers the resources and the working conditions that create successful outcomes."

Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance, pointed out that about half of all children who've died from abuse and neglect were previously brought to the attention of authorities.

"But case workers are routinely stretched too thin," she said, "and funding levels are too low. The result is often too little action that is taken too late, and kids die as a result."

woman with child in lapTwo joyful participants celebrate Step Up For Kids Week.

In addition to reauthorizing the recently expired Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which provides federal funding to states to address child abuse and neglect, the ECMEF is calling on Congress to spend as much as $5 billion in additional funding to help alleviate child protective workers' caseloads and to provide a wider array of public health and social services for at risk families.

Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., embraced the call for more federal funds at the rally. "Especially as budgets are tightened, we must provide states with adequate levels of support," Casey said.

Kennedy called for increased funding for parent education programs. "A lot of [parents] don't know any better than to repeat the cycle of violence that they were brought up in" because they lack training on how to be a parent, he said.

The ECMEF also recommends that Congress modify confidentiality provisions of the CAPTA that restrict authorities from sharing with the public certain information on a child's death that could help to improve the child protection system. It is calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to standardize definitions and methodologies used to collect data related to maltreatment deaths and require states to provide such data in order to receive federal funds.

HHS also should conduct a public education campaign to encourage reporting of child abuse and neglect and to enlist communities in the protection of children, the ECMEF said in its report. And HHS and the Department of Justice, in cooperation with the states, should adopt a model protocol for assuring that civil and criminal legal proceedings are closely coordinated between child protection and law enforcement agencies.

"The U.S. child abuse death rate is among the highest in the world," Petit said. "... We need leaders who will step up for children and make concerted efforts to turn these numbers around."