In January 2008, four sisters were found dead in their southeast Washington, D.C. home. The girls, ages 5, 6, 11, and 17, had been murdered by their mother, Banita Jacks, months earlier. She was recently convicted and sentenced to 120 years in prison. None of the District of Columbia’s social service agencies or the police intervened to save the girls despite some alarming signs that they were in great peril. The Jacks case is by no means isolated. On any given day, four or five children die in the United States as a result of abuse or neglect and a child is abused or neglected every 40 seconds. So many child victims of abuse and neglect suffer physical, sexual, and psychological harm that can have both a short and long-term negative impact on their behavior and physical and mental health.
A few months ago, child advocates, child protective service professionals, health providers, law enforcement officials, and policy makers came together to develop new ways to prevent child deaths from abuse and neglect at a summit convened by the Every Child Matters Education Fund seeking to direct greater national attention to improving our systems for safeguarding vulnerable children. It focused on recognizing and disseminating information about programs and policies that work to protect children but simply need more resources. Participants also identified areas needing improvement and expansion and offered new proposals to better protect children.
Every year, millions of cases of child abuse and neglect are reported. Some involve life-threatening circumstances. Current child protective services succeed in preventing deaths in many of these cases, but too many children die when they fail. Failures result from a variety of reasons—lack of resources; child protective professionals overburdened with large caseloads; poor training and/or supervision; inadequate policies and procedures; unavailability of child placement options; and even workers uncommitted to truly helping children. The most recent data show about 1,700 child deaths from abuse and neglect in 2007, twice as many as American combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq that year. Research shows that child deaths are considerably undercounted.
The bottom line is that we’re not doing nearly enough to protect children. People on the frontlines of caring include relatives, the family across the street, social workers, law enforcement officers, and mental health and health care professionals and educators. But whether it’s an aunt who observes a dramatic change in a child’s behavior, a school nurse who sees a child with a new set of bruises each week, a school social worker who notices a long string of absences, or a police officer responding to a report of screams from the neighbors, all have a responsibility to hear, see, and report these observations to authorities who can intervene and perhaps save a child’s life.
Improvements to child protective services must be comprehensive and include strengthening families and preventing maltreatment early. Home visits are critical as are proven long-term services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, teen pregnancy prevention, prenatal care, and other policies we know work. That’s why the Children’s Defense Fund struggles daily for comprehensive, accessible, and affordable health and mental health care for every child.
A number of the Summit recommendations should inform the overdue reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 2010. One urges the federal government to increase funding so child protective workers and other frontline professionals can have smaller caseloads and better training and enable at-risk families and children to receive a wider array of needed health and social services.
Neighbors and relatives must stop looking the other way when children are being hurt and killed. We must reach out to those close to us who are struggling to care for children. And many public and private organizations trying to help children face hard challenges every day with shoestring budgets. April will be National Child Abuse Prevention Month. We spend tens of billions to fight wars abroad but lack a commitment to defend children at risk of injury and death at home. We need to get our priorities straight.