New York Armed with grim statistics, experts and activists are mobilizing this week to demand expanded federal efforts — including more money and tougher oversight — to reverse a recent rise in the number of children dying from abuse and neglect.
Child-welfare advocates gathering for a rally and conference in Washington say America should be embarrassed to have a child-abuse death rate far higher than other wealthy democracies. They cite the latest federal figures showing that an estimated 1,760 U.S. children died from abuse and neglect in 2007 — up 35 percent from 2001.
“Child abuse and neglect are national problems that require national solutions,” said Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund. “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.”
The recession is inflicting a further hit, with many states imposing budget cuts that affect child welfare programs. Abuse deaths are up sharply in some areas — authorities in Nevada’s Clark County, home to Las Vegas, have tallied 37 abuse deaths so far this year, compared with 18 in all of 2008.
Every Child Matters is releasing a report today, a day ahead of the two-day child abuse conference, contending that inadequate resources are stretching state child-protection agencies too thin to properly serve at-risk children and their families.
The report — which brings together data compiled by a variety of federal, state and private agencies — says per capita spending on child protection varies widely by state, as does the diligence of state agencies in collecting statistics on abuse fatalities.
“The differences between the states are so vast that there’s got to be a federal intervention that’s stronger than present or these children will continue to die at these high rates,” Petit said.
The report cited a survey by UNICEF in 2003 that calculated the U.S. child abuse death rate as 3 times higher than Canada’s and 11 times higher than Italy’s.
Among the report’s recommendations:
• Up to $5 billion in additional federal funds to support child protection services.
• Adoption of national standards for child protection, to be mandatory for states accepting federal funds.
• Tougher, more consistent rules for how states collect and report data on child maltreatment deaths. The latest federal report on such deaths lacked data from four states, and Petit says other states may not include some fatalities that are in fact caused by abuse or neglect.
• A federal/state public education campaign to encourage reporting of child abuse and neglect.
Every Child Matters was organizing a rally today at the Capitol with support from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and stars from NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU” — which often deals with family violence in its plots.
Casey said he hopes the week’s activities will help “shine a light” on what he calls an epidemic of child abuse.
“As much of the frontline fight against child abuse takes place at the state level, the federal government must continue to work with states to provide resources,” he said. “Especially as budgets are tightened, we must provide states with adequate levels of support.”
However, the new report’s recommendations were not universally welcomed.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said any additional federal spending would be better used to support at-risk families so fewer children would need to be removed from their homes in the first place. He contends that the number of child abuse deaths — while regrettable — is a tiny fraction of the number of children removed from their homes unnecessarily.
“Their proposal amounts to stealing $3 billion to $5 billion that might go to prevention, family preservation and helping to ameliorate poverty and spending it instead on investigating families and taking away children,” Wexler wrote on in a commentary on the report.