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Davis Opening Statement: Hearing on Child Deaths Due to Maltreatment

July 12, 2011

When children die from maltreatment, it sometimes makes international headlines, as in the Caylee Anthony case that drew the focus of millions around the world in recent months.

Sometimes the death of a child from maltreatment gains attention due to the shocking details of their treatment while alive.  That is what has happened in the case of 13-year-old Christian Choate, an Indiana boy killed in 2009 after years of abuse, including being allegedly locked in a 3-foot-high dog cage.  After his death, police found letters he had written about how he wondered when anyone would check on him or give him any food or water.  Christian asked “why nobody liked him and how he just wanted to be liked by his family.” It’s hard to fully comprehend the depth of the sadness this boy must have experienced during his too-short life.

And sometimes the death of a child from maltreatment does not make headlines at all, possibly because it is not recorded as a death from maltreatment — for a variety of reasons we will learn more about today.

It is hard to know which child deaths are more tragic — those we know about, or those we do not.  But our job today is to make sure that all deaths of children due to maltreatment are recorded, so we can learn from all of them and use that knowledge to work with State and local partners to prevent more of these tragedies from occurring in the future.

Our role is to be the voice for the voiceless — especially those children whose deaths are missing from official data today.

The federal government estimates that 1,770 children died due to maltreatment in 2009, the most recent year of data we have.  But as we will learn during today‚Äôs hearing, that official data understates the total number of children who die due to maltreatment each year, for numerous reasons.  This undercount could be significant.  GAO indicates that 24 States only report the deaths of children who had previous contact with the child welfare agency.  Another study found child welfare agency records undercounted deaths by 55 to 76 percent.  The bottom line is States are not reporting each child maltreatment death, and that makes it harder to prevent these deaths in the future.

We welcome a range of experts today to help us understand how we currently count the number of children who die each year due to maltreatment as well as to discuss flaws in the current system.  These experts will also help us to determine how these systems can be improved and how better information can help us better protect children, which is our ultimate goal.

I want to commend Chairman Camp, who last year asked GAO to review and report on these issues, based on his concern that we are unfortunately not getting it right today.  That GAO report is being released today, and is the backstop of GAO’s testimony this morning.

We also welcome experts from the broader community who have worked for years to prevent child deaths due to maltreatment.  Our panel today includes Tamara Tunie, the spokesperson for the National Coalition to End Child Deaths, who has worked to raise the profile of this issue and better protect children.  We look forward to all of our witnesses’ testimony, and thank them for their commitment to better protecting children from abuse and neglect.