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The Price of America’s Inability to Track Child Deaths from Abuse and Neglect? Sometimes, More Lives.

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22.01.2020

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This story was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Experts have long suspected that the United States badly undercounts the number of children who die from abuse and neglect. The voluntary reporting system relied on for decades may be off by at least 200%, they say, missing thousands of fatalities.

In 2012, Congress moved to make information about the deaths more accessible to the public by requiring states to release detailed reports on child fatalities and near-fatalities. But when The Boston Globe and ProPublica set out to collect these reports, it turned into a frustrating, three-year slog through child welfare offices from Maine to Hawaii.

In the end, 41 states handed over data on some 7,000 child fatalities from 2011 to 2015—slightly more than they had reported over the same period to the voluntary system, called the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, or NCANDS. That’s far short of the more than 15,000 child abuse and neglect deaths that many experts estimate for the five years.

Still, the state reports, published here for the first time on Bostonglobe.com and propublica.org, are more detailed than any that had been publicly available, giving far more specific information about how children were harmed and who harmed them.

The data largely confirm what is known from the voluntary system—that male children are slightly more likely to die of abuse and neglect and children under the age of 3 are the most common victims of mistreatment—but with new specificity. Blunt force trauma was the most common cause of violent death, for example, while neglect deaths were most commonly related to unsafe sleeping conditions.

Just as striking, though, was what was missing. Wyoming, for example, released nothing at all, declining to answer questions about why the data was withheld. Montana also released no data, acknowledging that that failure was a violation of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the main federal child abuse law for children not in state custody. Kansas wanted to charge more than $11,000 for the information and would not answer questions about the cost. (Montana and Kansas have passed laws making their data more accessible, but not retroactively, so they would not provide the years requested.)

Other states left out important information, such as the specific cause of death, even though rules set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say that’s among the “minimum” facts that must be released. Some states insisted that turning over this information would violate laws protecting the privacy of at-risk children and their families.

More than a dozen states provided no information on near-fatalities and many said they don’t even track them.

The result was a far murkier picture of child maltreatment in the United States than advocates imagined when Congress mandated states report this information.

“This is one of the few areas where Congress has removed the cloak of secrecy and still, some states are trying to operate this way,” said Elisa Weichel, an attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute in San Diego. “We can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t know what happened.”

In May, the House approved a bill that would reathorize CAPTA and update the voluntary guidelines around........

© Mother Jones