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Protect Our Kids Act: An Update

Social workers play an important role in protecting children.

Social work will be predictive and proactive, with professionals working seamlessly with law enforcement and medical professionals to prevent child fatalities and injury. This vision for social work’s future is based on recommendations made by a best-practices commission created under the Protect Our Kids Act. In some states and counties – and at Case Western Reserve University – the future is already here.

The concentrations and specializations offered at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences through its online master’s in social work degree program prepare students for the 21st century of interagency cooperation envisioned in the commission’s report.

The task is crucial, especially in child fatality prevention, given that in 2015 alone, an estimated 1,670 children died because of abuse or neglect, according to reports by ChildWelfare.gov, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Interagency and fast response

The legislation that became the Protect Our Kids Act of 2012 created a commission but did not authorize or require changes in policies, practices, or agency funding. The Commission, after two years of research and public hearings, recommended a federal strategy to reduce the number of child deaths attributed to abuse or neglect. The legislation passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law on January 14, 2013, by President Barack Obama.

It created a panel called the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities with members representing the fields of health, mental health, education, social services, and law. It was tasked with looking at child welfare services funded under title IV and title XX of the Social Security Act.

In March 2016, the commission released a report that included with a wide range of recommendations. Some recommendations, such as shifting an agency’s or medical office’s focus to concentrate more on children from birth to age three, which are high-risk years of child fatalities, could be implemented voluntarily by social services or child-health administrators. Others would continue with or expand existing programs, while still others would depend on Congress to authorize, amend, or fund them unless states decide to fund them on their own.

The commission’s report can be considered as a map that charts a general direction for professionals whose work involves the well-being of children. Here are the broader directions:

1. Interagency Cooperation And Fast Responses

Interagency cooperation is the first step for quick reactions to calls or red flags. The report notes that the biggest single predictor of child fatality is a prior call to Child Protective Services, whether the accusations are verified or not. An immediate investigation is crucial.

“The importance of child protection workers’ access to real-time information about families cannot be overestimated,” chairman David Sanders wrote in the final report. He is executive vice president of Casey Family Programs and a former director of the Department of Family Services in Los Angeles.

“Our current approach waits until a child is severely injured before intervening with vital supports,” he said. “It relies primarily on a single government agency to intervene with families who face complex and intersecting challenges. Too often, the current approach inflicts significant additional trauma on the very children it seeks to protect.”

One example of work being done is in Los Angeles. There, law enforcement officers investigate a call to a child-abuse hotline just as they would respond to a 911 call – as an emergency. Law enforcement and social services use the web-based system E-SCARS –¬ the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System. An officer dispatched to investigate child abuse can learn from E-SCARS whether social services had investigated the family the past, how many children are in a family, or if previous calls indicated at-risk issues for parents, caretakers, or other adults in the home. Law enforcement is responsible for putting its information into the system, which could assist social services later as it looks at the family’s needs and the children’s safety.

2. Predictive And Proactive

Seven states use data analytics software and personnel to flag high-risk child protection cases. The information alerts staff “for intensive monitoring and caseworker coaching,” Sanders wrote in an article, “The Chronicle for Social Change.” A Florida county’s analytics work is featured in the commission’s official report.

In Hillsborough County, the deaths of nine children in two years (eight of the children had been in the county’s social service files) led social services to look at client data closely. Experts were called, and predictive, data-mining software was used to flag clients with risk factors matching children who died of abuse or neglect. The report states that when the software flags a child, case-management teams meet and “address these issues through immediate and more focused visits to the home, improvements to safety plans, access to specific services, and more.”

The report’s executive summary explains the philosophy behind data mining and why information should be shared with professionals in other fields: “We realize that parents of children who die from abuse or neglect are often struggling.

“They may have drug addictions, mental illnesses, cognitive disabilities, or previous criminal histories. They may face domestic violence at home or live in unsafe, crime-ridden communities. These conditions do not excuse harmful behaviors toward children, but they do help to explain why no single agency, acting alone, can address all of the complex circumstances in troubled families’ lives.”

3. The Long View

Data-mining software is only as helpful as the information input into it, the report noted, and cooperation among agencies that add the information is essential. The data can make a difference nationwide. Accurate reporting allows agencies and law enforcement to spot high-risk issues such parental backgrounds, a child’s health, or other factors that could help experts spot children at high risk.

An accurate national count of child protection fatalities is crucial. “Better data allow us to begin to understand what works and what doesn’t,” Sanders wrote.

The report also calls for developing uniform standards for information included in medical and forensics reports in child fatalities. A record that lists “head injury” as cause of death, for example, does not tell researchers if the death was deliberate or accidental. Recommendations are made to states, to agencies working with tribal community leaders, and to Congress.

Progress After The Report

The concepts of predictive and proactive intervention got a thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sanders said, and the department will “advance 60 percent” of the recommendations that affect it. He also noted that:

  • Eight states are developing state fatality prevention plans.
  • In Indiana, the Department of Child Services changed its assessment policies for any report of abuse or neglect of children who had not yet reached their third birthdays.
  • Hennepin County, Minnesota, will provide resources for additional staff to reduce child protection caseloads and more staff for parent support outreach.
  • Doctors and nurses at 19 Ohio hospitals will receive new training on how to screen for signs of child abuse in infants six months and younger.
  • Texas released a five-year strategic plan to prevent child maltreatment fatalities.
  • Congress passed and President Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act in summer 2016. Its goal is to direct people with addictions into in treatment rather than the criminal justice system, and Sanders said it includes guidelines for the welfare of children exposed to opioids.
  • Talia’s Law was passed, requiring communication between the military and state child protective services in cases of alleged neglect or abuse of a military child.

The future of child protection depends on data that can help predict family problems and cooperation between agencies, medical personnel, and law enforcement. The Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA, equivalent to an MSW) program at Case Western Reserve University can prepare its social work graduates to be leaders in reducing cases of child abuse and subsequent fatalities.

About Case Western Reserve University’s Online MSSA Program

Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences is ranked among the top ten Social Work graduate schools by U.S. News & World Report and offers a master’s of social work program online. The coursework blends seamlessly with hands-on field experience in three concentrations: Community Practice for Social Change, Direct Practice (Children, Youth, and Families), and Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults).

Sources
Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. (Final report, 2016). Within our reach: A national strategy to eliminate child abuse and neglect fatalities. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. – https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cecanf_final_report.pdf

Child welfare:
Child Maltreatment Report 2015 – https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/canstats.pdf
Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities – https://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/2015/1506PolicyInstituteforGovernorsHSAEliminateChildAbuse_Sanders.pdf

David Sanders, Phd., Policy and Practice Changes Form Around National Strategy to Reduce Fatalities and Improve Child Safety, Chronicle of Social Change, Feb. 24, 2017 – https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/opinion/policy-and-practice-changes-form-around-national-strategy-to-reduce-child-maltreatment-fatalities-and-improve-child-safety/25095