Briefing Calls for National Standards on Child Abuse

Suzanna Tiapula, Tamara Tunie and Theresa CovingtonPanelists at an April Capitol Hill briefing on child maltreatment deaths included (from left) Suzanna Tiapula, Tamara Tunie and Theresa Covington. Tiapula is director of the National District Attorneys Association’s child abuse prosecution initiative; Tunie stars in the television series "Law & Order: SVU;" and Covington is executive director of the National Center for Child Death Review.

In an effort to address the rising number of child maltreatment deaths in America, U.S. Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., sponsored an April congressional briefing on the topic.

The briefing was hosted by the Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths, of which NASW is a member.

Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers need to investigate ways to improve the system that safeguards America’s children. “For us to not act on this is not an option,” he said. “The difficulty of these cases is heartbreaking.”

Camp said he is planning a congressional hearing this summer to coincide with the release of a report from the Government Accountability Office that examines youth fatalities in the child welfare system. Camp acknowledged that additional funding to help America’s abused children may not be possible at a time when lawmakers are proposing drastic reductions in federal spending. However, policies and procedures can be reviewed and improved, he said.

“We need your help in how to solve these issues,” he said.

Noted Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, a member of the Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths: “There are things that can be done that do not cost money.”

The coalition has gained greater public attention thanks in part to actress Tamara Tunie, who portrays a medical examiner on the NBC television series Law and Order: SVU.

Tunie attended the hearing in Washington and handed Camp a petition with more than 9,000 signatures, urging Congress to act on child maltreatment deaths. Tunie said she became inspired to serve as the coalition’s celebrity spokesperson after talking with the group’s leaders about their ambitions to improve the system. She noted her television series often includes tragic storylines about child abuse and child death cases.

“People know who I am and listen to me,” she said of how she can aid the coalition. “It became my mission to help with this issue any way I possibly can.”

While child maltreatment may seem insurmountable, there are some basic steps that can make a huge difference.

Michael PetitMichael Petit, president of Every Child Matters Education Fund, spoke at the briefing. “Protection is a matter of geography,” he said. “Some states spend five times as much as other states.”

Michael Petit, president of coalition member Every Child Matters Education Fund, explained states’ funding to keep children safe varies dramatically.

“Protection is a matter of geography,” he said. “Some states spend five times as much as other states.”

Petit explained that the coalition asks lawmakers to create a national strategy to lower child maltreatment deaths. This measure would create national standards of data collection and definitions of such cases, he noted.

Theresa Convington, director of the National Center for Child Death Review, a coalition member, said federal lawmakers must fund national efforts to more accurately count and report child maltreatment deaths and to support national solutions that can help keep children alive.

“We can and must do better,” she said.

NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark served as an expert panelist at the hearing. She said lawmakers also need to know the importance of supporting a sustainable child welfare workforce.

“We need the highly skilled frontline workers out there,” Clark said.