The federal government abandons its legal duty to protect vulnerable children, according to the report “Shame on U.S.,” released Jan. 27. All 50 states fall short of the minimum standards of child protection set by federal law. Judges, courts, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Congress are all at fault, according to the two groups that wrote the report over three years.
“Our laws are weak. We don’t invest in solutions. Federal laws aren’t enforced. And courts are turning their backs. This creates a trifecta of inertia and neglect,” said Amy Harfeld, policy director at the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law (CAI), which wrote the report with the nonprofit group First Star.
In a statement released with the report, Elisa Weichel, Administrative Director and Staff Attorney at CAI, said, “It is no secret that child welfare law is disjointed and underfunded.” But people are not as aware the federal government is legally mandated to enforce certain standards for child protection, and the judicial branch makes it harder for people to sue to protect children.
“It is even less understood that many federal courts have denied private citizens the right to file suit for violations of federal child welfare law,” said Weichel.
She says the report connects these dots for the first time by holding all three branches accountable and pointing out the interconnected web of failures and the need for corrections.
The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 children have died annually from abuse or neglect in recent years, whether or not they were known to the child welfare system. Many experts believe the actual number is twice as high and that many more children suffer from near-fatal abuse and neglect every year.
“Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic secrecy, and most efforts by the media and advocates to provide the public with much needed transparency—which leads to accountability—are thwarted by the very governmental entities and officials who have turned their backs on their official duties to children,” the groups said.
Michael Petit, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities and serves as adviser to the advocacy group Every Child Matters, said he agreed with what he has read thus far in the “Shame on US” report.
“The report is saying what a lot of people have been experiencing,” Petit said, who wasn’t speaking on the commission’s behalf. “I share many of those sentiments that the federal government is not providing the kind of oversight needed.”
The Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star fault all three branches of federal government for failing to protect children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible for implementing and enforcing federal child welfare laws and programs, but the agency largely takes a hands-off approach, allowing states to self-certify that they are in compliance with federal requirements.
“There is no meaningful oversight and the states know it,” the report said.
Agency spokeswoman Laura Goulding did not immediately return a call and an email seeking comment on the report Monday.
Congress needs to mandate that HHS impose fines, withhold funds, or take other punitive actions when states don’t follow federal regulations, the report said.
The Associated Press Contributed to this report