Hearing Focuses on Child Deaths

Tamara TunieLaw & Order:  SVU star Tamara Tunie spoke at the hearing.

Media attention surrounding the short life of Caylee Anthony has strengthened attention on the need to address child maltreatment deaths.

Though no one has been found guilty in the death of the 2-year-old Florida girl, federal lawmakers cited her case as an example that improvements in child welfare are needed to help protect the nation’s youngest citizens.

“Our role is to be the voice for the voiceless, especially those children whose deaths are missing from official data today,” said U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources.

In July, the subcommittee hosted a hearing on the issue that included testimony by members of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths, of which NASW is an active member.

Lawmakers reviewed a new report on the matter drafted by the Government Accountability Office’s Kay E. Brown, director of Education, Work and Income Security. She testified that, based on research, the national estimate of 1,770 child maltreatment deaths in fiscal year 2009 is likely underreported. Among the top reasons are inconsistent state definitions of what constitutes maltreatment and the lack of information that is exchanged among social welfare and judicial agencies. Better collection of data would help with prevention of maltreatment deaths, she said.

“Without improving on data (collection), we lose precious opportunities to help many children,” Brown testified.

Experts at the hearing said they believe 2,500 children die each year, or about seven children every day, from abuse and neglect.

Dr. Carol Jenny, director of Child Protection Program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, agreed with findings of the GAO report. “Many deaths from neglect are not counted as such,” she said. For example, deaths due to prolonged malnutrition are not recorded as maltreatment deaths, she explained.

Theresa Covington, director of the National Center for Child Death Review, a coalition member, said definitions of maltreatment differ not only among states, but sometimes among jurisdictions within a state. She said federal action is needed to develop standard definitions for fatal maltreatment in civil and criminal jurisdictions. Attention is also needed to address privacy and confidentiality barriers that prevent the divulging of information when it may be needed to keep a child safe, she said.

Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund, a coalition member, testified that there are too few social workers and community support systems in place in many parts of the country that can aid children and families at risk of maltreatment. He noted that states differ in the amount of funding they devote to child protection programs.

Tamara Tunie, who stars on the NBC television series Law and Order: SVU, testified that her mission as spokesperson for the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths is to raise awareness and help the coalition broaden its message. “I think it’s important to put a face on (this issue),” she told lawmakers.

NASW submitted written testimony for the hearing as well, highlighting the vital role social workers play in helping the nation’s children and families through practice, child welfare research, training and policy.

The association agreed that tracking data on deaths from child abuse and neglect remains woefully inadequate.

To properly address chronic neglect, NASW argued, targeted ongoing services and support systems as well as early intervention services for new parents are needed, since child neglect is the most prevalent type of maltreatment.

“The provision for the early childhood evidence-based home visiting program included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is one attempt to address this need for parents most at risk,” the testimony stated.

The association noted the challenges facing front-line child protective services workers also need to be examined by lawmakers. These workers endure low salaries, limited access to technology, safety risks and high caseloads and workloads.

NASW recommended federal funding to enhance education and training of professional social workers and for child protection agencies to increase their staffing standards by requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in social work for front-line workers and an MSW and experience for supervisors.

The association urged 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 this information and for the creation of a National Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths.

After the hearing, members of the Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths met with Lauren Dunn, policy assistant for the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, to encourage support for the proposals within the executive branch.

Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of the NASW Foundation Social Work Policy Institute, attended the meeting. “We informed [Dunn] about the hearing and the fact that this effort is receiving bipartisan support,” Zlotnik said. “We explained how we hoped the White House would support the coalition’s recommendations as the safety and well-being of children involve many federal agencies.”

Zlotnik said the meeting was beneficial and that Dunn encouraged further dialogue with the members.

In a related child welfare matter, the same House subcommittee held a June 30 hearing that called for ways to improve programs designed to protect at-risk youth. NASW filed written testimony for the hearing.

The association urged reauthorization of the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services Program, which provide an array of services for families with children. NASW outlined the challenges facing child welfare social workers and asked lawmakers to fully authorize the requested $505 million. NASW also recommended that Congress establish a national caseload size: “Federal statutes, policies and funding streams can help make important and lasting improvements in the ability of social workers to meet the needs of the consumer.”

Nancy McFall Jean, NASW senior lobbyist, said: “We will work with Congress to advance a bill that will address these entrenched issues and will continue to collaborate with our coalition partners such as the Child Abuse Coalition and the National Coalition to End Child Deaths and others to protect our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

In August, NASW sent an advocacy alert to members urging them to contact their representatives to support the Child and Family Services Extension and Enhancement Act, H.R. 2790, that was introduced Aug. 2. NASW supports the legislation that would extend funding for Title IV-B (1) Child Welfare Services at the currently authorized level of $325 million through 2016.