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House Explores Plan for Reducing Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in U.S.

Following Congressional Hearing, Government Accountability Office (GAO) Recommends Strengthening Data on Child Fatalities to Improve Prevention and Reduce Deaths

WASHINGTON, D. C. - A congressional hearing held on July 12 about child deaths due to maltreatment called on national experts to explain why the number of child deaths has been undercounted. The hearing coincided with the release of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on child abuse and neglect deaths associated with the child welfare system.

Congressman Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, called for the hearing when he was presented with a petition including more than 8,000 signatures during a congressional briefing on child abuse deaths hosted by the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths (NCECAD) in April.

Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Geoff Davis (R-KY) opened the hearing with remarks about the “transience of hype” that comes with high profile child abuse cases. He challenged committee members and the hearing speakers to consider gaps, but also to identify ways that better information in the system can help caregivers prevent future tragedies.     
Findings from the long awaited GAO report, Child Maltreatment: Strengthening National Data on Child Fatalities Could Aid Prevention, were presented at the hearing. In addition, child welfare experts made recommendations for what can be done to reduce child fatalities.

Hearing witnesses included:

  • Kay E. Brown – Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security for the U.S. Government Accountability Office
  • Tamara Tunie – Actor  (Law & Order: SVU) and spokesperson for the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths
  • Carole Jenny, MD – Director of the Child Protection Program, Hasbro Children's Hospital, and internationally known expert in child abuse prevention and treatment
  • Theresa Covington, MPH – Director of the National Center for Child Death Review and member of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths
  • Michael Petit, MSW – President, Every Child Matters Education Fund and member of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths
  • Jane McClure Burstain, PhD– Senior Policy Analyst, Texas Center on Public Policy Priorities

Kay E. Brown presented the GAO’s new report which focuses on the whether or not the federal National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) accurately or completely captures the number or circumstances of child abuse and neglect fatalities. Their conclusion: it does not.

NCANDS reported 1,770 child abuse and neglect related fatalities in 2009, but the GAO report cited a peer-reviewed study of fatal maltreatment in three states and found that the deaths were undercounted by 55 to 76 percent. The more likely number of child abuse and neglect related fatalities is 2,500—an estimate provided by the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths.

The GAO report further concludes that reducing preventable fatalities requires complete and reliable data based on commonly understood definitions of maltreatment and the systematic evaluation of the causes and circumstances of these deaths.

Tamara Tunie, who portrays a medical examiner on the hit television show Law & Order: SVU also testified.  She said, “On Law and Order, we investigate fictionalized crimes and often deal with difficult storylines, but nothing compares to the real and tragic cases we hear about with increasing regularity in this country. Since becoming the Coalition’s spokesperson, I have learned about the thousands of American children dying at the hands of those who are supposed to love and protect them. The need for action is critical, beginning with raising awareness.” 

Teri Covington from the National Center on Child Death Review (member of NCECAD) agreed with most of the findings in the GAO report. However, Covington also recommended the creation of a National Commission to End Child Abuse Deaths to study the complexities of the issue and offer national solutions to the GAO report findings. She ended her testimony addressing the House Committee on Ways in Means: “I ask that tonight you think about the seven, and maybe even eight or nine or ten children, who died today because someone who is supposed to tuck them in at night killed them instead. Tomorrow, please use your power on this committee to take action to keep our children alive.” 

Michael Petit, President of Every Child Matters Education Fund, presented NCECAD’s proposed national strategies for decreasing and ultimately preventing these tragic deaths. He suggested the development of model protocols to ensure that both civil and criminal legal proceedings in child welfare cases are closely coordinated with relevant agencies. Petit said, "Included in this multidisciplinary protocol should be the efforts of law enforcement, prosecutors, child welfare workers and also medical professionals, who may be the first to come into contact with an abused child.”

Full written testimony from the speakers can be found on the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources website.

About the Members of the Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths:

The National Association of Social Workers(NASW) is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with nearly 145,000 members and 56 chapters. Founded in 1955, NASW works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies that support individuals, families and communities. 

The National Center for Child Death Review (NCCDR) is a resource center for state and local child death review programs. The center provides technical assistance to help teams develop, implement and sustain a prevention-focused CDR process, training, strategic planning and program development for state and local teams, consultation to coordinate with other reviews, including fetal and infant mortality, domestic violence, serious injury, and maternal mortality, support for the network of CDR program leaders.

The National Children’s Alliance (NCA) is a professional membership organization dedicated to helping local communities respond to allegations of child abuse in ways that are effective and efficient – and put the needs of child victims first. NCA provides training, support, technical assistance and leadership on a national level to local children’s and child advocacy centers and communities responding to reports of child abuse and neglect. 

The Every Child Matters Education Fund (ECMEF) was founded in 2002 with the mission to make children’s issues a political priority. To that end, ECM has promoted the adoption of smart policies for children and youth. These include ensuring that children have access to affordable, comprehensive health care services, expanding early-care and learning opportunities and after-school programs, preventing violence, abuse, maltreatment and fatalities against children in their homes and alleviating child poverty.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), founded in 1950, is the oldest and largest professional organization representing criminal prosecutors in the world. The National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse (NCPCA), a program of NDAA, was established in 1985. NCPCA is staffed with professionals involved in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse, exploitation and technology facilitated crimes against children. NCPCA trains approximately 10,000 child abuse prosecutors and allied professionals annually, and provides technical assistance to thousands more.