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Study: At least 786 child abuse victims died despite being on protective services’ radar

The Associated Press

At least 786 children died of abuse or neglect in the United States in a six-year span in plain view of child protection authorities — many of them beaten, starved or left alone to drown while agencies had good reason to know they were in danger, The Associated Press has found.

To determine that number, the AP canvassed the 50 states, the District of Columbia and branches of the military — circumventing a system that does a terrible job of accounting for child deaths. Many states struggled to provide numbers. Secrecy often prevailed.

Most of the 786 children whose cases were compiled by the AP were younger than 4. They lost their lives even as authorities were investigating their families or providing some form of protective services because of previous instances of neglect or violence or other troubles in the home.

Take Mattisyn Blaz, a 2-month-old Montana girl who died when her father spiked her “like a football,” in the words of a prosecutor.

Matthew Blaz was well-known to child services personnel and police. Just two weeks after Mattisyn was born on June 25, 2013, he got home drunk, grabbed his wife by her hair and threw her to the kitchen floor while she clung to the newborn.

Jennifer Blaz said a child protective services worker visited the next day, spoke with her briefly and left. Her husband pleaded guilty to assault and was ordered by a judge to take anger management classes and stay away from his wife. Convinced he had changed, his wife allowed him to return to the home.

She said the next official contact between the family and Montana child services was more than six weeks later — the day of Mattisyn’s funeral.

The system failed Ethan Henderson, who was only 10 weeks old but had been treated for a broken arm when his father hurled him into a recliner so hard that it caused a fatal brain injury.

Maine hotline workers had received at least 13 calls warning that Ethan or his siblings were suffering abuse. The caseworker who inspected the family’s cramped trailer six days before Ethan died on May 8, 2012, wrote that the baby appeared “well cared for and safe in the care of his parents.”

Many factors can contribute to the abuse dilemma nationwide: The child protective services system is plagued with worker shortages and a serious overload of cases. Budgets are tight, and nearly 40 percent of the 3 million child abuse and neglect complaints made annually to child protective services hotlines are “screened out” and never investigated.

Insufficient training for those who answer child abuse hotlines leads to reports being misclassified, sometimes with deadly consequences; a lack of a comprehensive national child welfare database allows some abusers to avoid detection by moving to different states; and a policy that promotes keeping families intact can play a major role in the number of deaths.

Because no single, complete set of data exists for the deaths of children who were being overseen by child welfare caseworkers, the information compiled during the course of AP’s eight-month investigation represents the most comprehensive statistics publicly available.

But the number of abuse and neglect fatalities where a prior open case existed at the time of death is expected to be much higher than the tally of 760.


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