Last week the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities held its first meeting with all twelve members participating in a vigorous discussion on the issues and challenges before the group.

Part of the agenda was allocated to comments by some of the architects of the legislation that created the commission. Staff from the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees addressed members on the intent of the legislation. They encouraged members to draft recommendations with an eye toward areas of law and policy at the federal level that may be preventing greater efforts to prevent child deaths. Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) a longtime and early sponsor of the legislation also addressed members. He urged them to be creative and not limited by the enabling legislation and to look across systems. He highlighted related programs, including a specific mention of the home visiting program (Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program/MIECHV under Title V of the Social Security Act) and the need to reauthorize the law this year. Doggett urged the commission to be pragmatic and to recognize the political realities of the current budget situation but also strongly urged members not to be limited in their recommendations by the politics of this year. Other topics raised by the Congressman included the issues of toxic stress, the need to examine caseloads and caseworkers challenges, and the lack of services to a significant percentage of children that are substantiated for child abuse and neglect. He assured the commission that when the report is issued it will get attention.

The Commission hearing included an opening presentation by Children’s Bureau staff on the current data that is available through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems (NCANDS). Some commission members were surprised by the fact that all fifty states do not necessarily report data in every field. They were also surprised to learn that the data system of reporting is voluntary. Data from the last report indicates that there were an estimated 1,640 children who died due to maltreatment. This total is the highest figure since 2009 when 1740 children died due to maltreatment. The rate of child deaths was 2.20 per 100,000 children, a rate that is also the highest since 2009. Consistent with previous years, 70 percent of child deaths were children under three years of age. The rate of child deaths is most severe for children under the age of one; in 2012 the rate was 18.8 per 100,000 children under the age of one. The victimization rate was higher for boys than girls with 2.54 deaths per 100,000 boys and 1.94 per 100,000 girls.

Many, including Commissioner Michael Petit, argue that actual child deaths are much higher. This is due to the varying ways a state may collect data. This resulted in an extensive discussion by members on how states compile data. For example if a child died but there are no siblings or other children in the family and there was no earlier involvement by CPS, that child death may not be included in this child death number in some states. Critics suggest that the more accurate number is closer to 3000 child deaths per year. There was also wide ranging discussion on how states screen for cases of child abuse and how and why some children may be screened out and how the answers to these questions may inform their future tasks.

Part of the day was an attempt to frame the commission work in the coming months. Questions included: How child protective services interacts or should interact with other systems? What are the risk factors and can we identify and protect children at-risk? Are there communities that have come up with effective strategies to prevent child deaths? Are there strategies that use technology and mapping? What do we know about the tribal communities (very little from national data) and how to address that lack of information? In that regard, Commissioner Zimmerman raised several issues regarding the tribal community and the need for the commission to place some focus on that area as well as rural areas.

The issue of how and when to craft recommendations came up several times with some of the congressional staff urging caution in recognizing limited resources as they make recommendations to Congress. There was recognition of that political reality but in addition there were also suggestions not just from Congressman Doggett but commission members including Commissioner Wade Horn that they ought not be limited by budget neutrality. He also further suggested that successful commissions needed to be a “disruptive event” that highlight the problem at hand.

The members of the Commission include: Dr. David Sanders, Casey Family Programs; Theresa Martha Covington, the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths; Patricia M. Martin, Presiding Judge of the Child Protection Division, Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois; Michael R. Petit, Every Child Matters Education Fund; Jennifer Rodriguez, Youth Law Center (YLC); Dr. David Rubin, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; Wade Horn, Deloitte Consulting; former Congressman Bud Cramer; Amy Ayoub, Nevada public speaking and presentation skills coach; Marilyn Bruguier Zimmerman, National Native Children’s Trauma Center; Susan Dreyfus, Alliance for Children and Families; and Cassie Bevan, Graduate School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
The commission did not indicate how or when the general public would be able to provide input or ideas. The work is guided by federal government open meeting and ethics standards so all formal meeting must be public and there are limitations on how members can interact with the public. As they wrapped up the first day their immediate task was to flush out their future schedules, locations and the narrowness or broadness of their investigation. The work is expected to last two years.