Number of Child Abuse Deaths Might Be Underestimated

Filed under: In The News

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At least 1,770 children died from abuse and neglect in 2009.

Probably more. Probably a lot more.

State officials underestimate the death toll from child abuse by at least 50 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office -- a nonpartisan congressional agency that audits federal programs.

The Scripps Howard News Service reports federal authorities get their stats on child abuse deaths from reports filed by state child-welfare agencies as the basis for the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

"We examined a number of published studies that were critical of these numbers, but none of the sources are perfect," Kay Brown, the GAO official who oversaw the review, told a House Ways and Means subcommittee July 12. "One study done in California, Michigan and Rhode Island found that maltreatment deaths were undercounted by 55 to 75 percent."

Theresa Covington, director of the federally funded National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, says a recent analysis of child deaths in 15 states done by the center shows there were twice as many neglect deaths in those states than reported through the federal database.

"The bottom line is that states are not reporting each child maltreatment death and that makes it hard to prevent these deaths in the future," says Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., chairman of the Human Resources subcommittee.

According to Scripps News, nearly half the states only report neglect deaths among children who were already the focus of child-welfare investigations.

Brown and other witnesses say by only recording fatalities, the system does not reflect the full range of dangers faced by children from caregivers and others. Several suggest the data be expanded to include near-fatal incidents.

Although most states have some system to review infant and child deaths, Scripps News reports, details are often left out of information submitted to the federal neglect tracking system. Only a few states collect information from death certificates or police, according to Scripps.

A 2007 Scripps Howard investigation of infant deaths revealed many deaths attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are actually the result of babies suffocating in unsafe sleep environments -- or being deliberately killed by caregivers.

The new service found that infant murder rates tend to be higher in states that have the most comprehensive systems for investigations.

"We need to improve our ability to recognize and discern when a death is due to child maltreatment," Carole Jenny, a professor of pediatrics at Brown University and head of the child-protection program at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, R.I., told lawmakers.

She added better investigations will save children's lives and "protect innocent parents from allegations of child abuse and neglect."

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