January 1st, 2010

Report reveals alarming child death statistics

On October, the Every Child Matters Education Fund (ECMEF) released eyebrow-raising findings, based on data obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services: 10,440 children died between 2001 to 2007 from abuse and neglect. Approximately 75% of those children were under age four. Even more alarming than this report are other studies that indicate this statistic may fall short of the actual number of child deaths.

Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters and former commissioner of Maine’s department of health and human services, notes that inattention to this serious issue prompted the report. “There were unchecked news accounts showing a steady stream of child victims who were not being covered [in the media],” he says. “We wanted to attract attention to the status of kids.”

According to the report, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont had some of the lowest rates of child deaths from abuse and/or neglect: 13, 14, 15 and 5, respectively. Petit notes that, even though figures for Connecticut and Massachusetts appeared to be relatively high (50 and 70, respectively), these states fared well when compared to national standards. Numbers were highest in southern states where poverty plays a major role in abusive situations, he points out.

While the numbers are staggering, Petit expresses concern about unreported incidents. “What is most disturbing is not only the large aggregate number, but the size of the undercounted,” he says, estimated in the report to total in the thousands.

The report indicates the direct annual cost to the mental health care system is $1.8 billion; the indirect costs in this category reach nearly $68 million each year. Thus, financial investment makes a difference in protecting children. Connecticut tops the list at $196.67 per capita with Virginia at the bottom with $28.60 per capita.

As a result of the report, several recommendations have been made, including the creation of a national standard; “softened” confidentiality requirements; mandated data collection and significantly upgraded staff training.

Massachusetts takes its commitment to child safety seriously as indicated by the $111.71 per capita it spends on child-focused programs. Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), says, “In the last two years, we have strengthened our core practices.” The state employs safety risk assessment tools that offer a broad view and consistently evaluate a situation and takes a family management approach. Comprehensive electronic records provide a long-term family history that enable case workers to quickly and efficiently obtain critical information, he adds.

Additionally, the timeframe for completing investigations has been expanded to allow staff to do a more thorough job, according to McClain. Cases, which previously had a deadline of 10 calendar days, are now given 15 business days to complete. “Emergency situations had to be completed in 24 hours before. That has been expanded to five business days,” adds McClain. An extensive team of clinical experts reviews each case process and looks for trends and in-house and field staff meets regularly to exchange information.

Most importantly, the Commonwealth offers children over 18 in the foster care system an opportunity to attend college. “Massachusetts has doubled the number of children who have signed themselves in to our care,” says McClain. “If we can support kids, we can give them a good start in life.” This system provides an indirect way of helping break the cycle of child abuse and neglect.

In 2009, Every Child Matters launched an aggressive media campaign to raise awareness of child abuse/neglect. To date, its report has appeared before more than 50 million individuals via radio, television and newspaper exposure, according to Petit. “We had a letter published in Annie’s Mailbox. That alone reached between 20 and 30 million readers,” he says. “Now we are ready to set policy propositions in front of Congress.

Petit hopes to see more involvement from psychologists in the future. “The clinical aspect is necessary but it’s equally important to get involved,” he says.” I would like to see more participation from the psychology community.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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