NEW YORK — The United States lacks coherent, effective strategies for reducing the stubbornly high number of children who die each year from abuse and neglect, a commission created by Congress reported Thursday after two years of sometimes divisive deliberations.
According to federal data, the number of such deaths has hovered at around 1,500 to 1,600 annually in recent years. But citing gaps in how this data is compiled, the report suggests the actual number may be as high as 3,000 a year.
Commission chairman David Sanders said a goal of zero maltreatment deaths was realistic.
“We looked at the airline industry — no one accepts a plane crash anymore. We can get that way with child fatalities,” said Sanders, executive vice president of Casey Family Programs.
The report made dozens of recommendations, including expanding safe-haven programs for abandoned infants and enlisting a broader range of community organizations to help often-overburdened child protection service workers.
“We need a system that does not rely on CPS agencies alone to keep all children safe,” the report said. “Other systems become key partners, including the courts, law enforcement, the medical community, mental health, public health, and education. Even neighbors who come into regular contact with young children and families are part of a public health approach.”
Still, the commission, comprised of six members appointed by Congress and six by President Barack Obama, failed to reach consensus on some issues. Two members declined to approve the final report and wrote dissents criticizing one of the major proposals.
Under that proposal, states would be required to review all child abuse and neglect deaths from the previous five years, and then develop prevention plans. States would identify children at high risk, and conduct investigations and home visits to determine if their families needed support services or if the children should be removed. Some commissioners recommended that Congress immediately allocate at least $1 billion in new funding to implement the plan.
“The commission is claiming that spending $1 billion on an experiment reviewing previous deaths will immediately save lives. This claim is not supported by evidence,” wrote dissenting commissioner Cassie Statuto Bevan, a child-welfare expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy.
The other dissenter was Patricia Martin, Chicago-based presiding judge of the Child Protection Division of Cook County Circuit Court. She expressed concern that the proposal would lead to more children being placed unnecessarily in foster care, and urged more support to keep families together. She also contended that the commission, by focusing on children under 5, had missed a chance to address fatalities among older children.