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National push starts to lessen child deaths

Kaydence Lewinski, 5 months old, shaken and beaten to death; Angela Palmer, 4, burned to death; Brianna Blackmond, 23 months, beaten to death; Samuel and Solomon Simms, 6-year-old twins, strangled; Jaydon Hoberg, 17 months, raped and beaten to death; Chandler Grafner, 7, starved to death; Prince McLeod Rams, 15 months, drowned.

These horrific cases from different times and different parts of the country, like hundreds of other incidents each year in which children die as the result of abuse and neglect, attracted attention. Grisly details generated headlines and sometimes action – a person arrested, a case worker blamed, an agency director fired, a local law changed.

What has been lacking is a systematic examination of policies and processes or development of a comprehensive strategy to prevent such deaths. That may change with establishment of a national commission to evaluate prevention and intervention efforts and recommend how federal, state and local agencies can strengthen protections for children and families.

The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities is the result of legislation, the Protect Our Kids Act of 2012, that got broad, bipartisan support in the House, passed the Senate unanimously and was signed by the president on Jan. 14. The commission will consist of 12 members, six to be named by the president and six to come from Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. Members are expected to be named this month.

It comes none too soon. Even as the overall rate of child abuse has declined, there’s been virtually no decline in the rate of child abuse fatalities.

Experts estimate that more than 2,000 children die from abuse and neglect each year, with nearly 82 percent of the victims younger than 4. The Every Child Matters education fund points out the 15,510 children known to have died between 2001 and 2010 is about 2 1/2 times the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, these numbers are underreported because there is no national standard for reporting.

Improving the collection of data, a key to devising better solutions, is among the commission’s missions, along with studying best practices and examining demographic and risk factors that may predict maltreatment. The commission will take a broad, multidisciplinary approach that will allow it to discuss and recommend ideas across boundaries that may normally limit such efforts – such as the lines between federal and state government, courts and child welfare agencies and health-care providers and law enforcement. We hope the commission takes a look at how confidentiality laws intended to protect children are perverted to thwart scrutiny.

Commissions always run the risk of producing expensive and ignored reports, but Congress structured this one to improve its chances for success. It must complete a report by a specific deadline, and federal agencies are required to respond to recommendations within six months. Political leaders will then need to follow up.

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