What does, and does NOT curb child abuse deaths


In 2009, The Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal Texas advocacy organization previously known for its strong support for taking away more children, published a report effectively calling into question that very approach.  This remarkable report looked not just at Texas, but at the entire nation. 

The report deals with what does – and what does not – contribute to what appears to be a relatively high rate of child abuse deaths in Texas. The findings, particularly in the "does not" category, are stunning.

By comparing a series of factors to child abuse death rates among the states, the report concludes:

● The rate at which people report child abuse, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more child abuse deaths.

● The rate at which a state takes children from their parents, which is said to be below average in Texas, does not contribute to more deaths.

● The rate at which a state screens in reports for investigation, which is said to be above average in Texas, (and which Carol Marbin Miller effectively condemned for being too low in Florida) does not contribute to fewer deaths.

In short, none of the traditional investigative and "police" functions of child protective services contribute anything to raising or lowering the rate of child abuse fatalities.

I'll get to what does make a difference in a moment. First, though – why don't the traditional CPS functions make a difference? The CPPP report doesn't say. But it's not that hard to figure out.


The number of children who die of child abuse in Texas is horrifying: 228 in 2007, just as the number in Florida is horrifying. In fact, even if the number were 1 it would be horrifying, since the only acceptable goal for child abuse fatalities is zero. But there are nearly 6.8 million children in Texas. And of that total, more than 1.5 million are living below the poverty line.  There are more than four million children in Florida, with nearly 900,000 of them living in poverty. In either state, that is one gigantic haystack. Why in the world would anyone think that, say, doubling or tripling the number of families investigated or children removed would really help us find more of those 228 needles in time?  (And before anyone suggests that the apparently higher number means Florida is worse, please read on to the part about why it’s impossible to compare states.)

So everything we've ever heard from anyone, including CPPP, claiming or implying that hiring more investigators to take more children from more families will save children's lives – is flat wrong. So is every statement from a politician or a Child Protective Services agency chief – or a journalist - urging us all to report our slightest, most absurd suspicions to a child protective hotline because "you just might save a life." And, of course, so is every news story which starts with a heinous child abuse death and segues immediately to the claim that this proves the state needs to take away more children.

Yeah, I know. Some will say: But what about the needles CPS did find, in the sense that the children were "known to the system"? Although the CPPP analysis doesn't mention it, and there are no reliable systematic data, news accounts from around the country suggest that the percentage of child abuse deaths "known to the system" is pretty similar among states as well. So there is no evidence that any of the CPS-related factors contribute to an increase or decrease in those deaths either.

There is one exception: In the very few places large enough to detect a pattern, to the extent that there is any pattern at all, deaths tend to go up in the wake of a foster-care panic, a huge sudden surge in removals of children. And that, too, makes sense. When workers are inundated with a surge in false reports, trivial cases, and needless removals, they have less time to find any child in real danger – so more such cases are missed. When the haystack suddenly grows, it's even harder to find the needles.


So if what CPS does or doesn't do has nothing to do with rates of child abuse fatalities, what does cause the higher rate in Texas?

This is where the CPPP report also is useful in another respect: It provides more evidence that it is impossible to do an accurate comparison of child abuse fatality rates among the states.

The CPPP report shows that the allegedly higher rate of such deaths in Texas is due in part to the simple fact that Texas has a broader definition of a child abuse fatality than most states and a more thorough process of child abuse death review than most states.

CPPP goes on to conclude this means other states are undercounting child abuse deaths. It also can mean Texas is overcounting them. For example, as is clear from the experience of Florida, determining when a drowning is an accident and when it is neglect can be highly subjective.

The report also says there are some factors which suggest that at least part of the higher rate in Texas is real. Texas has certain factors which have been shown to contribute to higher rates of child abuse fatalities:

● High rates of poverty

● High rates of teen pregnancy

● Low rates of services to prevent child maltreatment.

Which means, of course, had Texas taken some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it spent to hire more investigators and otherwise make the system bigger and spent it instead on proven prevention programs and help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, fewer Texas children might be dead today.

You don’t suppose there’s anything Florida can learn from that?