RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in the U.S., a new study by a children's research and advocacy group is blaming the federal government for not properly enforcing laws to protect children from abuse and neglect. As a result, children are suffering. NPR's Pam Fessler has that story. And a warning - it contains details that may be disturbing to some listeners.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The numbers are grim. Almost 680,000 children were the victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. More than 1,500 of them died. The federal government says it's encouraged that the numbers are lower than they were the year before, but child advocates say no one is really sure that they are.
ELISA WEICHEL: This is just something that's chronically underreported.
FESSLER: Elisa Weichel is with the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School. She says abuse and neglect cases, especially those resulting in death, are often not disclosed as required by law. And she says that has led to other problems in the child welfare system.
WEICHEL: It all boils down to having the right amount of data about what's working and what's not. And when your data is flawed, every other part of your system is going to be flawed.
FESSLER: And her group says there are plenty of flaws. The institute conducted a three-year study and found that not one state has met minimum child welfare standards set by the federal government, standards such as how quickly they investigate reports of abuse. And the group blames both Congress and the courts for failing to step in.
WEICHEL: We're not going to save every kid, but I have to think that if we were doing a better job of protecting them, we might have saved some of them.
FESSLER: The Department of Health and Human Services, which reviews state programs, declined to comment on the report. But there is broad agreement among those involved that the system is in desperate need of repair. The child welfare agencies are underfunded and caseworkers often overwhelmed.
RON SMITH: Whether or not individual states can meet a reporting standard to us is not where the emphasis ought to be.
FESSLER: Ron Smith is with the American Public Human Services Association, which represents child welfare administrators.
SMITH: It needs to be on making sure that the kids who need assistance are getting assistance, and the families that need assistance are getting the assistance.
FESSLER: He says state and local officials complain that they spend too much time filling out federal forms and trying to meet requirements that aren't necessarily best for kids. Instead they want more flexibility to focus on keeping families together, rather than on helping kids after they've been abused and removed from their homes. Ron Zychowski agrees that change is needed. He's with Eckerd, a nonprofit company that runs child welfare services in three Florida counties. Eckerd has developed a new system. It identifies which children under its care are at highest risk of serious injury or death so it can quickly fix any problems.
RON ZYCHOWSKI: And I'm very pleased to report that in two years we have not had a child death from abuse or neglect in any of our cases.
FESSLER: And the program's getting lots of attention, including from a new commission set up by Congress to help eliminate abuse and neglect deaths. But Zychowski warns in this field, there's no silver bullet.
ZYCHOWSKI: Bad people will do bad things to children. We're not going to catch them all, and we're not going to stop them all.
FESSLER: And there was a horrific reminder of that this month. A Florida man was accused of killing his 5-year-old daughter by throwing her off a bridge. Zychowski says that family wasn't in the child welfare system. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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