BUTTE, Montana (AP) — At least 786 children died of abuse or neglect in the U.S. in a six-year span in plain view of child protection authorities — many of them beaten, starved or left alone to drown while agencies had good reason to know they were in danger, The Associated Press has found.
To determine that number, the AP canvassed the 50 states, the District of Columbia and all branches of the military — circumventing a system that does a terrible job of accounting for child deaths. Many states struggled to provide numbers. Secrecy often prevailed.
Most of the 786 children whose cases were compiled by the AP were under the age of 4. They lost their lives even as authorities were investigating their families or providing some form of protective services because of previous instances of neglect, violence or other troubles in the home.
Take Mattisyn Blaz, a 2-month-old from Montana who died when her father spiked her “like a football,” in the words of a prosecutor.
Matthew Blaz was well-known to child services personnel and police. Just two weeks after Mattisyn was born on June 25, 2013, he came home drunk, grabbed his wife by her hair and threw her to the kitchen floor while she clung to the newborn. He snatched the baby from her arms, giving her back only when Jennifer Blaz called police.
Jennifer Blaz said a child protective services worker visited the day after her husband’s attack, spoke with her briefly and left. Her husband pleaded guilty to assault and was ordered by a judge to take anger management classes and stay away from his wife.
She said the next official contact between the family and Montana child services came more than six weeks later — the day of Mattisyn’s funeral.
The system also failed Ethan Henderson, who was only 10 weeks old but already had been treated for a broken arm when his father hurled him into a recliner so hard that it caused a fatal brain injury.
Maine hotline workers had received at least 13 calls warning that Ethan or his siblings were suffering abuse — including assertions that an older sister had been found covered in bruises, was possibly being sexually abused and had been burned by a stove because she was left unsupervised.
Ethan himself had arrived at daycare with deep red bruises dappling his arm.
Still, the caseworker who inspected the family’s cramped trailer six days before Ethan died on May 8, 2012, wrote that the baby appeared “well cared for and safe in the care of his parents.”
LACK OF GOVERNMENT DATA
Because no single, complete set of data exists for the deaths of children who already were being overseen by child protective services workers, the information compiled over the course of AP’s eight-month investigation represents the most comprehensive statistics publicly available.
The AP reviewed thousands of pages of official reports, child fatality records and police documents for the period in question, which ran from fiscal year 2008 through 2013.
And, even then, the number of abuse and neglect fatalities where a prior open case existed at the time of death is undoubtedly much higher than the tally of 760.
Seven states reported a total of 230 open-case child deaths over the six-year period, but those were not included in the AP count because the states could not make a distinction between investigations started due to the incident that ultimately led to a child’s death and cases that already were open when the child received the fatal injury.
Some states did not provide data for all six years, not all branches of the military provided complete information, and no count of open-case deaths of any type was obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or FBI, which investigate allegations of abuse on reservations.
The lack of comprehensive data makes it difficult to measure how well those responsible for keeping children safe are protecting their most vulnerable charges.
The data collection system on child deaths is so flawed that no one can even say with accuracy how many children overall die from abuse or neglect every year. The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 deaths annually in recent years; many believe the actual number is twice as high.
Even more lacking is comprehensive, publicly available data about the number of children dying while the subject of an open case or while receiving assistance from the agencies that exist to keep them safe — the focus of AP’s reporting.
When asked to explain why so many children with open cases have died at the hands of their caretakers, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the nation’s major child abuse prevention programs, said the agency had no immediate response.
But spokeswoman Laura Goulding said colleagues wanted to know more about how the AP derived its figures. “Are you willing to share your source for that?” she wrote in an email.
States submit information on child abuse deaths to the federal government on a voluntary basis — some of it comprehensive, some of it inaccurate.
For instance, a significant number of deaths were not reported to the South Carolina team reviewing child deaths in the state, said Perry Simpson, director of the South Carolina Legislative Audit Council. That meant the data the review team provided the federal government was wrong.
And a judge in Kentucky issued a scathing order last year against the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services for willfully circumventing open records laws and failing to release full records on child abuse deaths, fining the agency $765,000.
“There can be no effective prevention when there is no public examination of the underlying facts,” Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said.
In some cases, states withhold information about child deaths in violation of the terms of federal grants they receive.
HHS says all states receiving grants under a prevention and treatment program must “allow the public to access information when child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality,” unless those details would put children, their families or those who report child abuse at risk, or jeopardize an investigation.
In addition, grants issued under a section of the Social Security Act are tied to a requirement that states describe how they calculate data on child maltreatment deaths submitted to the federal government.
Written by HOLBROOK MOHR and GARANCE BURKE
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