Support Grows in Congress For Revised Child Abuse Law

June 10, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of federal legislation on Thursday to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The House already approved a similar version of the bill, nearly guaranteeing it will reach President Joe Biden’s desk for final approval.

It is different from its predecessor legislation that stretches back more than three decades for the way it uses digital age data to target only the most serious cases of child abuse and neglect. 

It also seeks to avoid investigating families because of their low incomes or questionable housing when there is no evidence children are being abused.

When abuse is found, the legislation reduces administrative barriers for foster care.

In 2019, an estimated 1,840 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The figure was up from 1,780 children who died from mistreatment a year earlier.

Although the 2020 official figures have not yet been released, unofficial tallies show an increase in unreported child abuse because of school closings that kept children away from the eyes of their teachers.

“This pandemic has been a perfect storm for making things worse,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

She was referring to the depression and desperation brought about by the quarantine and job losses associated with COVID-19. Police blame them for a surge in gun violence and domestic abuse since the pandemic started.

In the case of children, the troubled mental health of parents also is blamed for verbal and physical attacks.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee, said 45% of the deceased victims are no more than one year old.

“All of us wish there was no need for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act,” Burr said.

He described the revised version as an effort to double down on what was right with previous legislation and correct what was wrong with it.

A controversial part of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was the way it made low incomes of caregivers a factor in determining whether they retain custody of children. The bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday makes low income an issue only if it contributes to abuse or neglect of children.

“These families and their children need help, not the trauma of separation,” Burr said.

Instead of separation, the new bill could mean the families are more likely to be assisted by social workers in finding jobs or other financial aid.

The law the bill is replacing was a frequent target of criticism by child advocates because of its long list of reporting and process requirements by states. 

A Boston Globe investigation in 2019 found that among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, all of them failed to comply with the law’s requirements to at least some degree. The news report blamed low funding by Congress and a lack of state compliance for avoidable child injuries and deaths.

Congress gave states $85 million in 2019 to help them follow the law’s guidelines. The reauthorized law would raise the funding to $90 million a year.

Other provisions require the Department of Health and Human Services to establish uniform national standards for tracking and reporting child fatalities and near-fatalities from maltreatment of children.

The bill also would set up a national electronic data exchange for states to share information from their child abuse and neglect registries with other states. The system would help eliminate risks child abusers could escape being tracked by moving across state lines.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, said during the Senate business meeting that child abuse was a “dark and really awful reflection of what really happens in our society.”

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