January 27, 2015;National Public Radio, “Shots”

Two advocacy groups have come forward to call the federal government’s efforts to enforce child protection laws a “national disgrace,” once again spotlighting the well-known shortcomings of the national child welfare system.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute at the San Diego University of Law, along with First Star, a charity focused on eliminating child abuse and neglect in the United States, collaborated on a three-year study that culminated in a 110-page report released on Tuesday. The dense and thorough report cites failures by all three federal government branches to adequately provide oversight of the enforcement of welfare laws and also to address potential problems or shortcomings of the laws.

According to the study, none of the of 50 states has met the minimum child welfare standards required by the federal government, such as creating and submitting timely reports of abuse. The study blames both Congress and the courts for failing to provide effective oversight of state agencies that have been shirking these standards, in place to avoid missing critical signs of abuse.

Moreover, the Department of Health and Human Services has also been “derelict in its duty to interpret or implement child welfare laws via formal rulemaking,” specifically when finding that states have not conformed to federal requirements regarding the quality of state agencies’ services.

This dysfunction among the three branches has contributed to the almost 680,000 children who were reported as victims of abuse or neglect in 2013, of which nearly 1,500 died; however, as horrific as that number is, it is very likely this number lower is than the actual figures.

“This is just something that’s chronically underreported,” says Elisa Weichel, a staff attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute.

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One of the significant issues with child abuse cases is that they are enveloped in secrecy. According to Weichel, although it is required by law to disclose a child death that results from neglect or abuse, many cases are often not reported. Quoting from the report:

“Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic secrecy, and most efforts by the media and advocates to provide the public with much needed transparency—which leads to accountability—are thwarted by the very governmental entities and officials who have turned their backs on their official duties to children.”

Whether the data being used is flawed or simply nonexistent, it’s evident that state and federal officials are overlooking the crisis in our welfare system, a fact explored in depth in a report by the Associated Press from last month. AP conducted a six-year study across all 50 states and reported on a pattern of state agencies that did not effectively account for child deaths. By the end of the study, AP reported that 786 children died of abuse in plain sight of the agencies and the caseworkers that were supposed to be monitoring them.

One of the cases explored by AP, that of two-month-old Mattisyn Blaz in Montana, who died after her father spiked her “like a football,” is a prime example of the ineptitudes of state welfare agencies that have been recorded. Matthew Blaz was no stranger to child protective services or the police. Police had already been to the house once before, two weeks after Mattisyn was born, when Blaz slammed his wife’s head into the ground in much the same way he would later murder his daughter. A child services official visited the Blaz family twice—once right after the assault, and once more at Mattisyn’s funeral. Blaz was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Mattisyn’s story represents an all-too-common characteristic of cases where caretakers take the lives of children: warning signs of impending violence. Without a serious reevaluation of the actions of underfunded and understaffed agencies, as well as the actions within the branches of federal government, there will be more Mattisyns.

The study admits the enormous effort it would take to properly and effectively run a welfare system that does what it is supposed to do. While the current system is in desperate need of an overhaul, “at the moment it is all we have to protect our children from abuse and neglect.” The first priority must be to ensure the safety of children, and that requires fixing the system that we do have.—Shafaq Hasan