A new report out today found that on average, five children died from abuse or neglect every day in the United States between 2001 and 2007.
The report by the advocacy group Every Child Matters, estimated that more than 10,000 children died over the same time frame.
In 2007 alone 1,760 children died, a 35 percent increase over the death rate in 2001. And, due to poor reporting and record-keeping in many states, the actual number is estimated to be as much as 50 percent higher.
Texas was found to have the highest number of deaths, 228, attributable to child abuse in 2007, but Kentucky had the highest per-capita rate at 4.09 deaths per 100,000 children.
In the wake of these findings, lawmakers and celebrities joined forces on Capitol Hill today to urge Congress to increase funding to fight child abuse. "It's a failure of the United States of America but we have the opportunity and the resources, and I believe the will and the commitment to correct this," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
With negotiations over health care reform ongoing, Casey and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., both urged lawmakers to include provisions to fight child abuse in any health care reform. "Within the Finance Committee health care proposal is Senate Bill 1267… the Evidence Based Home Visitation Act of 2009.
The data shows that among other things, the risk of child abuse and neglect dropped significantly for mothers and children involved in this program. There is no reason why we should not pass that as part of the health care bill," Casey said.
Kennedy emphasized the importance of getting parents access to adequate mental and psychological care. "One of the things that we have in this health bill, is mental health parity...The reason why that's so important in helping reduce child abuse and neglect is obviously children have parents and those parents if they are not mentally healthy...they are going to be more likely to take that out and have an environment where those kids are forced to grow up in really difficult and traumatic circumstances," he said.
Several members of the advocacy community agreed. "We need to pass comprehensive health reform that supports our nations families and includes crucial public health services like home visiting, like well child care, like prevention for all Americans," said CEO of the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs Michael Fraser.
Lawmakers Call for Increased Parent Education Programs
Kennedy also called for increased funding for parent education programs. "This is not only a health issue, it's an education issue," he said. "We need to look at our education system in a holistic family context. We know that if the parent is involved in their child's education, those children succeed. If there are mentors involved those children succeed... we need to make sure we mentor at risk parents.
"A lot of them don't know any better than to repeat the cycle of violence that they were brought up in. If they know that they can reinforce positive behaviors through these mechanisms and these methods... who teaches someone how to become a parent? Where do you get a license to be a parent?... Why is it that we don't do more to facilitate new families being able to get the necessary directives?" Kennedy asked.
The report notes that inadequate state resources leaves many states stretched too thin and unable to provide protection to all of the children in need. "When it comes to the investments we're talking about, against our great wealth, it's such [a] small, small sums of money. Three, 4 or 5 billion dollars. Compare that to the bailout of world's biggest banks. If the United States is able to bailout America's banks, it ought to be able to bailout America's children and families," said Every Child Matters President Michael Petit.
The report found a nearly 13-fold difference between the amounts that states spend per person to counter child abuse and neglect. Thirteen states spent less than $50 per person to address issues of abuse, while top states invested close to three times that amount. Rhode Island spends the most at $181 per person.
Poor funding adds additional stress to advocacy programs and increases the case loads of social workers tasked with helping children in high-risk situations.
"Too often, large case loads and unsupportive work environments lead to high employee turnover, hindering attainment of key safety and permanency outcomes for children," explained Rebecca Myers of the National Association of Social Workers. "We owe these workers the resources and the working conditions that create successful outcomes. We must do better."
Celebrities Speak Out Against Child Abuse
Lawmakers and advocates were joined by celebrities from the cast of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." "Through the drama and the acting, I have a real empathy for these real-life people that these characters are drawn from," said B.D. Wong, who plays forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. "[The violence] goes much further than people think it does and it behooves us all as a community and a nation to investigate this important topic and to do something about it."