Pennsylvania is nationally recognized as a leader in early childhood care and education, yet we lack a statewide child abuse prevention strategy. Scores of infants and toddlers are dying or nearly dying from child abuse, but the issue has gone unaddressed by state policymakers.
Between 2008 and 2011, Pennsylvania recorded 147 children as having died from injuries substantiated as child abuse. An additional 177 sustained injuries certified by physicians as child abuse near-fatalities.
The age of the children involved is alarming. Nearly 80 percent of the fatalities and 90 percent of the near-fatalities involved a child 3 years of age or younger. And nearly 50 percent of those who died were in a family active in or previously known to the child welfare system.
Equally troubling is that Pennsylvania and other states undercount child abuse fatalities.
The Protect Our Children Committee identified 32 additional fatalities between 2008 and 2011 that appeared to be child abuse. Examples include a 3-month-old in Erie County shaken so violently that his brain separated from his skull, Allegheny County brothers left alone in a locked home that caught fire and a 20-day-old Westmoreland County infant whose brief life ended as a result of blunt force trauma to her head and chest.
Each of these 32 fatalities resulted in criminal charges, 19 in convictions, but the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare hasn't recognized these children as victims of child abuse.
Pennsylvania must accurately report how many children die or experience a near-fatality from child abuse and learn why incidents that appear to be similar in nature -- such as children injured by shaking, or because they had access to a loaded gun, or because they were allowed to sleep in unsafe conditions -- are substantiated as child abuse in some counties and not in others.
Child advocates fought for a state law requiring that local communities review cases when a child dies or nearly dies as a result of child abuse. These multidisciplinary studies are not a blame game, but rather an opportunity to learn from tragedy and reinforce the point that protecting children is a community responsibility.
To its credit, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has embraced the reviews, inviting interdisciplinary expertise and working to implement recommended reforms. Advocates still hope to see the state Department of Public Welfare do likewise and for the counties and state to follow the public disclosure provision of the law.
DPW has released only about a third of the fatality reports for substantiated child abuse cases between 2009 and 2011. Counties deny requests for local reports, citing the need for official guidance from DPW. The limited reports released by DPW are so redacted that lessons go unlearned, the vision for prevention unrealized.
Congress won't win any popularity contests, but there is at least one important reason to compliment the 112th Congress. With overwhelming bipartisan support in the House of Representatives and unanimous consent in the Senate, the Protect Our Kids Act was signed into law last month. The legislation creates a 12-member Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, to conduct a "thorough study" of child protective services, to recommend ways to collect "accurate, uniform data" and to prioritize prevention services for families most at-risk.
"When we talk about the death of a child, we're talking not about potential, a light that might shine brightly or less so, we're talking about a life and a light that has been snuffed out," Sen. Bob Casey Jr. said in supporting the act. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., reflected, "While Newtown is rightly receiving the nation's attention, what goes unnoticed far too often is the number of children who die each year in this country as a result of abuse and neglect."
Congress gets credit for believing that preventing child abuse fatalities must be a national priority. Now it is time for Pennsylvania to follow suit -- by reducing the number of child abuse fatalities and near-fatalities as part of a comprehensive plan to protect Pennsylvania's children.