There has been an important shift in the conversation around child abuse and neglect fatalities in recent years. Previously, our systems were designed to respond only after a tragedy occurred. Today, however, with the support of new public policy and greater knowledge, we are beginning to think and act in terms of preventing child abuse tragedies before they occur.
Effective prevention efforts, however, are reliant on improved data and data sharing between child support agencies. This includes current and comprehensive numbers on child abuse and fatalities and their causes in order to identify those most at risk.
In 2016, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, charged by Congress and the president to develop a national strategy to eliminate child maltreatment deaths, released a groundbreaking report. In it, we highlighted the fact that, if our nation does nothing different to prevent these tragedies, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 U.S. children will die from maltreatment each year. Some experts, however, estimate the real number may be much higher.
Why the discrepancy?
There is currently no standard, mandated reporting system for child abuse or neglect deaths in this country. Definitions, investigative procedures and reporting polices vary from state to state. Some states may classify a drowning death as a neglect fatality while others may classify it as an accident.
That is why the commission included in its recommendations the need to create uniform standards for fatality reporting, better sources of data on risk and protective factors, and policies to encourage real-time data sharing across agencies.
For example, the commission learned that the highest risk factor for an abuse or neglect fatality was the age of the child, with infants and toddlers most likely to suffer a maltreatment death. A call to a child protection hotline, regardless of the disposition, is also a strong predictor of a later child abuse or neglect fatality. And yet, all too often, child protection workers “screen out” certain calls even among these higher risk groups. Even if screened in, data sharing policies may prohibit public health and other human services from learning about these high-risk children and making sure supports are put in place to help the family better support their children.
With passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, states are mandated to accurately quantify child maltreatment deaths and develop prevention plans to mitigate them. And yet, the federal government has not yet developed a national, standardized counting framework to assist in this effort. There has also been no federal effort to encourage and support states in the development of fatality prevention plans.
Outdated data (many government agencies are currently reporting data that is two to three years old) and the inability to see data across systems also impedes the ability of staff on the ground to share real-time information and inhibits research that could lead to better policies and practices.
More and more, non-governmental agencies, including media outlets and nonprofits, are working to fill these data gaps.
For example, The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news site focused on children, youth and families, launched an ambitious data and reporting project in 2017 to examine where at-risk children go when they are removed from home due to abuse. Entitled “Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families,” their research draws upon multiple sources, including information requests with each state and the District of Columbia, as well as federally collected data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).
The Annie E. Casey Foundation annually publishes The KIDS COUNT Data Book, a ranking of states on 16 key measures of child well-being. They offer the best available data and statistics on the educational, social, economic and physical well-being of children at the local, state and national levels.
Predict-Align-Prevent is a new nonprofit that is helping communities identify and share fatality data and other socio-economic community data to better predict areas at highest risk and then develops prevention programs rooted in a health equity/public health framework.
Having current and comprehensive data is critical, however, data sharing among organizations is equally critical.
In a recent article, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted: “Sharing data between health care and child welfare systems is vital to help provide the highest-quality and most continuous care possible for children in protective custody.” They outlined the importance of ensuring appropriate agreements are in place between medical care providers and child protective services caseworkers to address data privacy and security, and comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
A new report from the Data Quality Campaign and the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education also finds that states that share data among child welfare and education agencies have a better chance of lessening some of the barriers foster care students face. The report details which states (currently 24, plus the District of Columbia) securely link K-12 data systems with foster care data systems to provide foster care students with crucial supports like assisting with timely enrollment.
In our modern, data-driven society, we must utilize the tools, including a standardized, national data system to classify, quantify and analyze child abuse and neglect incidents and their outcomes in order to get a clearer picture of children at risk. And, we must bring innovation to the ways in which we share data across multiple systems to ensure that everyone has the information they need to help children succeed.
With the reauthorization of the Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) on the horizon, the federal government has the opportunity to develop national standards for data and data-sharing that can help practitioners have access to the information they need to prevent child deaths before they occur.
Theresa Covington is director of the Within Our Reach office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She also is the director of the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, and previously served as a commissioner on the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.