Report blasts child welfare system: How to better protect US kids?

Experts say that prevention efforts at the local level, combined with better data collection and tighter federal oversight could reduce the number of cases of abuse and neglect.

A new report released Tuesday finds that the United States government is falling woefully short in its attempts to keep the nation’s youngest residents safe. But despite the bleak picture, experts say that programs at the local level, combined with better data collection and tighter federal oversight, could reduce the number of cases of abuse and neglect.

The 110-page report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, titled “Shame on the U.S.,” outlines the failure of all three branches of government to protect children and enforce federal child welfare laws at the state level.

The report echoes the findings of an Associated Press investigation published in December that revealed a system in crisis, tainted by weak federal oversight and budget constraints and beset by a voluntary data-collection system so unreliable that nobody can verify how many children die from abuse or neglect each year.

The most recent data available suggest that nearly 680,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013, and an estimated 1,500 children died.

Despite the widespread consensus that the child welfare system is flawed, however, some local programs are having a measure of success, says Charles Shelan, chief executive officer of Community Youth Services in Olympia, Wash.

“Many states work their tails off trying to comply with federal law, but all 50 states are a work in progress,” he says.

For example, he sees parental education programs as a cost-effective opportunity to head off problems of abuse and neglect before they start.

“Often you have kids coming out of foster care at 18 who have their own children,” Mr. Shelan says. “But these are parents who can barely take care of themselves. Parental education programs, however, give them the skills to be better parents and ensure that their children don’t also end up in foster care.”

Another example of how child abuse and neglect can be prevented at a local level is the work of Eckerd, a nonprofit company based in Clearwater, Fla., that runs child welfare services in three of the state’s largest counties. Eckerd has developed a system to identify which of the children under its care are at the highest risk of serious injury or death, so it can fix problems quickly and avoid potential catastrophes.

"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," Ron Zychowski, a representative of Eckerd, told NPR.

More broadly, analysts say that reliable data will be needed to fix the problem.

“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,” Elisa Weichel, a staff attorney with the Children's Advocacy Institute, which published the report Tuesday, told NPR.

Others agree.

"If, for example, you want to fix something like fatalities due to children being left alone, it seems that it would be important to know how often that is happening and what it looks like to come up with a solution," David Sanders, chairman of the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, told AP.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute suggests making child welfare funding contingent on a state’s compliance with child welfare law requirements. It also encouraged the judicial branch to take a more proactive role in bolstering lax executive branch enforcement. Such moves could go a long way in helping to better serve the nation’s children, the group's researchers say.

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