A Steady March Toward Child Fatality Prevention

Last year, the federal report Child Maltreatment 2016 found that deaths of children from abuse and neglect increased by more than 7 percent from 2015 to 2016. While this increase may be due in part to improved reporting by states, it is estimated that nearly five children are killed by abuse or neglect in the U.S. every day.

The nation has a concrete and attainable national strategy for lawmakers, policy leaders and human service agencies to address and eradicate these deaths. It comes from the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF), which released its recommendations in March 2016.

Within Our Reach
Within Our Reach: A national commission made hundreds of recommendations aimed at preventing the occurrence of abuse and neglect fatalities in America

Entitled “Within our Reach: A National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities,” the report and its recommendations outline a proactive approach to immediately ensure the safety of children at high risk for harm along with strategies and policy recommendations to improve child and family health and well-being.

The report identifies more than 100 recommendations for reducing fatalities that require policy and systems changes that improve leadership and accountability, ground child protection decisions in better data and research, and enhance multidisciplinary interagency coordination to support families.

Today, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth will host a briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss the progress that has been made in translating this strategy into legislative action and national, state and local policies and practices. This progress has been significant, with policy and practice changes occurring in all 50 states and at the federal level in the two years since the report was published.

Perhaps the most seismic change in federal child welfare policy can be found in the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was passed as part of a short-term spending agreement in February. The legislation restructures Title IV-E funding and, for the first time, makes resources available from the federal government to provide intervention services to help prevent children who have already been abused or neglected from entering foster care.

It steers resources toward these children and their families, which are intended to reduce the stressors that often lead to abuse and neglect, including mental health, substance abuse and home visiting services. The overall goal of the Family First Act is to keep more children connected to family. Importantly, it also requires that each state develop a plan for tracking and eliminating fatalities due to abuse and neglect.

Another major federal improvement to child welfare is the additional $60 million in Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) funds that Congress allocated in fiscal 2018 to help states implement plans of safe care for infants born exposed to opiates and other drugs. The newly introduced Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 proposes sustaining that level of investment over the next five years.

Despite these significant federal funding supports, no legislation was passed to provide funding for programs that can prevent abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place. The Family First Act kicks in only after a child has suffered from abuse or neglect, which doesn’t innoculate them strongly enough against the risk of near-fatality or death.

Future bills, including the reauthorization of CAPTA, must include greater funding in support of community-based primary prevention. To fully address the need, the Within Our Reach report recommends significant increases to CAPTA funding for states.

In addition to federal efforts, there are significant policy and practice changes taking place in all 50 states that are consistent with strategies in the Commission’s report. These include improved data sharing between agencies that lead to faster and stronger actions to protect children; the use of predictive analytics to better identify and provide services to children at high risk of harm; more multidisciplinary planning and actions among agencies that have for too long operated in silos; and a renewed focus on preventing abuse by supporting and strengthening families through community-based approaches.

Many of these changes are described in Steps Forward, a report produced by the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego’s School of Law, which identifies more than 180 different child maltreatment fatality prevention efforts occurring at both the state and county levels.

We are convinced that the recommended solutions to child abuse and neglect deaths put better outcomes within our reach. Our office, Within Our Reach, is promoting guiding principles and strategies states can use to redesign child welfare systems that are informed by prevention science and benefit the welfare of children, with Family First provisions supporting one part of a comprehensive approach.

Working together, we have found and will continue to build the political wisdom, courage and resources to save children’s lives. We must continue our resolve and political will to build a 21st century child welfare system that uses a public health approach to strengthen families and improve child health, safety and well-being.

Only then will we move closer to a goal of zero children losing their lives in situations that better policies could have prevented.

Teri Covington is executive director of the Within Our Reach office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She served on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities and as director of the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention.

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