Panel Charged With Eliminating Child Abuse Deaths

A federal commission to prevent children's deaths from abuse and neglect held its first meeting on Monday. Figuring out the extent of the problem is just one challenge facing the new commission.

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About 1700 children die in the U.S. each year as the result of abuse and neglect. At least that's the official count. Many experts think the real number is much higher. Figuring out the extent of the problem is just one challenge facing a new commission set up to help eliminate such deaths. The panel held its first meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The stories are usually too horrific for people to think about; children beaten, stabbed, abused to death often at the hands of family or friends. And often in families that have already raised red flags with authorities. Commissioner Jennifer Rodriguez says too many children fall through the cracks and she knows that firsthand.

JENNIFER RODRIGUEZ: I was actually born into a family that probably had every risk factor that we're going to be talking talk about. My mother was seriously mentally ill - paranoid schizophrenic - my father was incarcerated, generational poverty. And my case was identified to the child welfare system immediately.

FESSLER: But it took 10 years before she was removed from her home, even though her mother was repeatedly hospitalized and arrested. Rodriquez, who now runs the Youth Law Center in California, says many agencies were involved with her family.

RODRIGUEZ: But because of confidentiality and lack of information-sharing, there wasn't really any action taken.

FESSLER: And that's just the kind of coordination problem the new commission hopes to fix. The 12-member panel was appointed last year by President Obama and congressional leaders, to recommend ways to eliminate deaths due to child abuse and neglect. An ambitious goal, indeed.

Commissioner Michael Petit, who heads an advocacy group called Every Child Matters, says one problem is that the cause of death is often in dispute.

MICHAEL PETIT: They are a spectrum from somebody rolling over on a child and being asphyxiated, to somebody who actually kills a child outright in a fit of anger. And I think knowing what those three or 4,000 deaths are is going to be important to us, in terms of what's the cause of death, who is that's doing the crime, and so forth, right?

FESSLER: But panel members say there is a lot that is known about such deaths, such as their prevalence in households with a history of domestic violence or drug abuse.

DAVID SANDERS: I think in some ways we do have an idea what of some of the solutions are.

FESSLER: David Sanders chairs the commission. He's a former child welfare official, now with a foundation called Casey Family Programs. Sanders cited a new effort in Tampa, Florida that tries to identify, in advance, those children at the highest risk of becoming another victim.

SANDERS: And when there's a trigger that happens, they really go into action and say, what do we need to do to assure safety here? And one of the results has been is there's been zero child fatalities due to child abuse or neglect in close to a year.

FESSLER: And he says the panel hopes to find other promising programs that might be expanded nationally. Of course, the challenge will be making recommendations that stick. Commissioner Bud Cramer, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama, notes that it's not the first commission to look at the topic.

BUD CRAMER: Others have been down this road before and we've still got child deaths. I think we're idealistic to think that we're going to stop all child deaths.

FESSLER: Still, he thinks. The panel could make some progress reducing them. It has two years to complete its work.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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