Report: Feds Fail to Protect Kids 01/27 08:42
The federal government's failure to enforce the nation's child protection
laws is a "national disgrace" that leaves abused children vulnerable to future
harm, according to a three-year study by two child advocacy groups.
(AP) -- The federal government's failure to enforce the nation's child
protection laws is a "national disgrace" that leaves abused children vulnerable
to future harm, according to a three-year study by two child advocacy groups.
The 110-page report released Tuesday identified some of the same failures
reported in December by The Associated Press after an eight-month investigation
into hundreds of children who died of abuse or neglect in plain view of child
"Our laws are weak. We don't invest in solutions. Federal laws aren't
enforced. And courts are turning their backs. This creates a trifecta of
inertia and neglect," said Amy Harfeld, policy director at the Children's
Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which wrote
the report with the nonprofit group First Star.
AP's investigation, published Dec. 18, also revealed a system in crisis,
hobbled by weak federal oversight, budget constraints, worker shortages and a
voluntary data collection system so flawed that nobody can say with accuracy
how many children die from abuse or neglect each year.
The AP found that at least 786 children died of abuse and neglect over a
six-year span --- many of them beaten, starved or left alone to drown --- while
agencies had good reason to know they were in danger. That figure represents
the most comprehensive statistics publicly available, but the actual number who
died even as authorities were investigating their families or providing some
form of protective services is likely much higher because antiquated
confidentiality laws allow many states to withhold vital information, shrouding
The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 children have
died annually from abuse or neglect in recent years, whether or not they were
known to the child welfare system, but many experts believe the actual number
is twice as high. And many more suffer from near-fatal abuse and neglect every
"Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic
secrecy, and most efforts by the media and advocates to provide the public with
much needed transparency --- which leads to accountability --- are thwarted by
the very governmental entities and officials who have turned their backs on
their official duties to children," the groups said.
Michael Petit, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the
Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities and serves
as adviser to the advocacy group Every Child Matters, said he agreed with what
he has read thus far in the report, entitled "Shame on U.S."
"The report is saying what a lot of people have been experiencing," Petit
said, who wasn't speaking on the commission's behalf. "I share many of those
sentiments that the federal government is not providing the kind of oversight
The Children's Advocacy Institute and First Star fault all three branches of
federal government for failing to protect children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for
implementing and enforcing federal child welfare laws and programs, but the
agency largely takes a hands-off approach, allowing states to self-certify that
they are in compliance with federal requirements.
"There is no meaningful oversight and the states know it," the report said.
Agency spokeswoman Laura Goulding did not immediately return a call and an
email seeking comment on the report Monday.
Congress needs to mandate that HHS impose fines, withhold funds or take
other punitive actions when states don't follow federal regulations, the report
Because HHS and Congress so rarely hold states accountable for their
failings, filing a lawsuit is usually the only way private parties can
challenge problems within the child welfare system. But lawsuits are time
consuming, expensive and often limited in their reach, covering violations in
only one state or county rather than widespread systemic failures, the groups
"Federal courts have turned their backs on private attempts to enforce
federal child welfare law and Congress has shown little interest in advancing
the law itself," the report said.
Emily Douglas, a child welfare expert at Bridgewater State University in
Bridgewater, Mass., called the report's findings about the judicial branch's
shortcomings particularly revealing.
"When something goes wrong, usually you hear that the state child welfare
agency is a wreck or that the governor is stepping in to fire someone," Douglas
said. "But increasingly judges are going to be on the radar about the important
role that they play in determining these kids' safety. Judges are not trained
social workers, so are we sure they always know the risk factors when deciding
children should be sent back home?"