Child Fatalities and Near Fatalities – Do We Need the Details?

 The Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) continues to work tirelessly to shine light on one of our nation’s  biggest tragedies  – child deaths due to abuse or neglect.  As phrased by political cartoonist Nick Anderson, these are “very real weapons of mass destruction.”  But why are the private details of these tragedies important for public consumption?  The short answer is simply that we can learn from them and do better. We need to continue to shout from the rooftops until we see real change to protect our children.

On average, more than 4,000 children are removed from their homes and enter foster care each week.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, more than 250,000 children entered foster care in 2010.  Unfortunately, not all removals from a parent’s home are warranted.  The Daily Beast recently reported that in that same year, “nearly 40 percent of children who had been removed from their homes – more than 85,000 children that year – were later returned with no finding of abuse or neglect, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.”

How was it that these children were returned to their homes without a finding of abuse or neglect?  Because when a child is removed, counsel are appointed for the parents, a Guardian ad Litem is appointed for the child, and a series of hearings must occur (including an initial hearing within 48 hours of the child’s initial removal) to assure both that reasonable efforts were made to avoid removal and that reasonable efforts are being made to reunify the child and parents.  There are several checks in place to assure that when a child is removed from her home the removal decision was correctly made.

But what about the children that aren’t removed, and instead are left in their home, perhaps erroneously?  We can’t assume that all non-removals are correctly decided.  Logic and the numbers simply do not bear that out.  Since there’s no system of checks in place for them, we can only hope to learn from their tragic cases after the fact by accessing and analyzing public records.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) established a national collection and analysis program on states’ data regarding child abuse and neglect.  States voluntarily submit their own data and it is then used to create annual reports which help better understand child abuse causes, demographics, and the systems assisting children.  As part of this data collection, DHHS looks at child fatalities due to abuse and neglect.  In 2009, 34 states reported their child fatality data.  In those 34 reporting states, nearly one in every eight child fatalities involved children whose families had received family preservation services in the past 5 years.

But it is imperative to go beyond the cases that escalated to the point of receiving services, and beyond states’ self-reports to instead take a look at cases where there were any prior child protective services contact.   CAI requested information from all of California’s 58 counties on fatalities and near fatalities due to child abuse and neglect for the period of July 21, 2006 through December 31, 2006.  During that time period, there were 30 near-fatalities and 53 fatalities reported.  Of the 30 cases of near-fatalities, 63% (19) of the children’s families had a child protective services history and 37% (11) had a child protective services history which CAI identified as substantially related to the reported near fatality.  Of the 53 fatalities, 82% (41) of the children’s families had a child protective services history and 53% (28) had a child protective services history which CAI identified as substantially related to the reported fatality.

By going beyond the self-reported numbers, CAI can see an unfortunate trend where more than three-quarters of all child fatalities due to abuse or neglect involve families with a child protective services history.

While there are checks in place to ensure the propriety of a child’s removal from their home, this doesn’t help the children that are being left in homes where abuse was known to be occurring.  When this happens, there is no systemic check in place to save these children.  These are the cases where our system has failed and where we must step in.

Anecdotal evidence shows that when we learn from these deaths – often because they are reported in the media – positive systemic change can occur.  Reporting of various child deaths in San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles counties have all lead local agencies to revisit and improve their practices with respect to child protection.  When a child’s death to due abuse or neglect occurs, it is imperative to do more than look the other way.

This is why CAI continues to put pressure on states to release all their information related to child abuse and neglect deaths.  The information we learn can often provide great insight into system’s failings and is the only silver lining we can hold on to from these most tragic cases.

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