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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 
protection authorities.

   "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 
their failures.

   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?"


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