Who’s to Blame for Child Abuse and Neglect Resulting in Child Death?

The media attention that a child death obtains is different for every situation.  When it is accidental, the local media may report on it, but it is often not highlighted for days.  The death of child who is known to a state child welfare agency typically brings the state agency under tremendous scrutiny for failing the child in some way – agency leadership gets fired, workers get fired or suspended, and in some cases, workers are prosecuted for contributing to the death of a child or for malicious neglect.  Recently, a state agency administrator of child protection was quoted as saying, “Parents are to blame for the injuries or death of their children.”  He is correct in that parents’ behavior or actions create a situation for a child to be severely injured or to die.  But where does the state child welfare agency have responsibility for that child’s oversight when the child is known to the agency?

A recent report, entitled, “Shame on U.S.” notes that in 2012, at least 686,000 American children were the victims of abuse or neglect.  A conservative estimate of the number of those children who were killed that year by abuse or neglect is 1,640 — meaning that abuse or neglect leads to the death of at least four to five children every day in the U.S. Sadly, it is believed that the real numbers of both child abuse/neglect victims and fatalities are much higher, due in part to unreported abuse.


“Shame on U.S” is a scathing report published by the University of San Diego’s Child Advocacy Institute and First Star in January 2015.  The report documents more than three years of investigation and research into the dysfunctional approach to addressing child abuse and neglect through the Executive Branch (Department of Health and Human Services), Judicial Branch (Court System) and the Legislative Branch (Congress). The report places the responsibility on the state agencies that operate a state’s child welfare system to improve the laws, policies, and guidance provided, although the major thrust of blame falls to others.  The report highlights areas in every aspect of government that need to function more adequately for the safety and well-being of children.  Some of the highlights include

  • an overview of the scope and purpose of major child welfare laws as enacted by Congress, and to what extent current laws meet the needs of children;
  • examination of how the judicial branch has interpreted those laws;
  • discussion of extent to which the executive branch implements and enforces those laws;
  • comments on the potential efficacy of each branch’s scope and reach;
  • examples of shortcomings in all three branches with regard to their respective roles vis-à-vis the child welfare system;
  • discussion of issues where the purpose or intent of child welfare laws are being openly violated by some states; and
  • a call for more robust activity from all three branches — and particularly enforcement by the executive branch charged with enforcing Congressional intent and, when necessary, withholding federal funding or imposing penalties where states are clearly not meeting minimum standards.


The report is particularly negative about how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has handled implementing areas where Congress has set minimal floors for state compliance, and how DHHS is not monitoring, is not detecting violations, is not insisting that states meet the national floor — and is virtually never imposing sanctions or penalties for chronic noncompliance.  Ironically, the authors point out that the one area where DHHS does do monitoring, issue penalties and impose sanctions is with Title IV-E Foster Care Eligibility Reviews.  The irony is that Title IV-E funding has significantly reduced resources to the states due to the 1996 look back date.  The antiquated income standards of 1996 make most children ineligible for Title IV-E funding, which impacts all the resources a state has to provide services to children in the system.  The report noted that while states are struggling with children in the system without financial support, Congress has yet to act on any action to delink the 1996 standards to Title IV-E eligibility or to restructure child welfare financing.  The report in its entirety can be found here: http://www.caichildlaw.org/Misc/Shame%20on%20U.S._FINAL.pdf