Advocacy groups turn national spotlight on child abuse deaths

January 1, 2011

Five national groups came together in December to call attention to their assertion that little media attention is given to child abuse deaths, despite the numbers being far higher than many other issues that do make the national news.

Five national groups came together in December to call attention to their assertion that little media attention is given to child abuse deaths, despite the numbers being far higher than many other issues that do make the national news.

The groups, including the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and the National Association of Social Workers, noted that the official number of child maltreatment deaths in the United States is about 1,800-twice the number of the 2009 combined deaths caused by several issues that did get news attention, including deaths of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and deaths from illnesses and coal mining accidents, among others.

Other groups in the coalition are the National Center for Child Death Review, National Children's Alliance, and the Every Child Matters Education Fund.

The groups, which make up the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths, said that the real number of annual child abuse deaths is likely 2,500 or more.

The official numbers are likely low, the coalition said in a previously published report, because of improper classification of many deaths as "unintentional injury deaths" when they were actually caused by maltreatment.

A number of deaths are reclassified after the circumstances are more closely examined by experts, that report said. "The vast majority of these reclassified deaths are associated with inadequate supervision of children, often rising to the level of neglect."

Suzanna Tiapula, director of the NDAA's National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, in an interview after the press conference said that her center recommends that pediatricians work with one of the 187 doctors who are board certified in child abuse. Information is available from the American Board of Pediatrics at http://www.abp.org/. If doctors have legal concerns, she said, they can call NDAA or her center, which has attorneys to respond to technical assistance or other requests.

Joan Zlotnik, director of the NASW Social Work Policy Institute, noted that physicians, particularly pediatricians, may be the only professionals who see families at risk, and they often observe situations that raise red flags.

"They also need to be involved in advocacy to support the child protection system," so that when there is a need to make a report, "they feel that the agency has the resources and the staff expertise to really adequately respond," she said.

Zlotnik also urged that pediatricians, as community authority figures, be involved in prevention efforts. There are coalitions, such as Prevent Child Abuse America, that have chapters in many states, as well as social service coalitions on the local level, she noted.

Calling for effective home-visiting services and community-based outreach, Zlotnik said many children who die from abuse and neglect are unknown to the child protection system.

The coalition's recommendations included strengthening programs on substance abuse and mental health treatment, teen pregnancy prevention, and other proven policies.

Coalition members also said that the federal Department of Health and Human Services should conduct a public education campaign to encourage reporting child maltreatment and should standardize definitions and methodologies for collecting state data.