We all gasp when a tragic story of child abuse causing an infant’s death hits the newspaper headlines. And we all think that officials will be diligently working to prevent these tragedies. Elected officials of both parties at every level always claim to prioritize children, but when push comes to shove, do they?
Assembly Bill 2660, which will improve California’s ability to evaluate and prevent the murders of children due to abuse and neglect, has passed the state Assembly and yet sits on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk unsigned with less than a week before the deadline. This bill aims to revive California’s moribund system of tracking child homicides and evaluating them to see if they can be prevented. The loss of this legislation will have a tragic impact.
California’s review of child homicides due to abuse and neglect has been chaotic and dysfunctional for some time. Current law gives oversight responsibility to three state departments: Justice, Social Services and Public Health, leaving no single agency in charge. Since the state interagency Child Death Review Council was defunded in 2008 by the Department of Justice, state policy and programs for intervention and prevention of this tragic problem have been uncoordinated and haphazard with diminishing reliability and loss of impact.
California’s counties have primary responsibility for health and welfare, including prevention of child fatalities. This county effort is not currently monitored by any state agency. Under current law, county child welfare agencies must report all child fatalities and near fatalities due to abuse or neglect to the Department of Social Services. Current law also states that counties themselves may have interagency and interdisciplinary “Child Death Review Teams (CDRTs)” which can evaluate suspicious cases and report them to the Department of Public Health.
Currently, neither department has validated the reliability of these reports, does not collate them, and cannot use them to develop preventive policy or interventions.
For three years, I have been an unpaid volunteer member of California’s Citizens Review Panel on “critical incidents” (child homicides due to abuse and neglect), a process mandated by the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Prior to this service, I was a family physician for 40 years, and I write today in my personal capacity.
Our review panel recently surveyed all 58 counties to assess their attention to and management of child homicides due to abuse and neglect. Only 28 of them replied and of these, 10 did not have the required Child Death Review Councils. This is untenable. No one in California can tell you with any reliability how many children were killed by abuse or neglect in any year.
Assembly Bill 2660, by Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (D) revises the penal code concerning child death investigations and review teams. Sponsored by the Child Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School, AB 2660 will correct most of these deficiencies. Programmatically it requires every county to have a CDRT, reestablishes the state Child Death Review Council and requires the Attorney General (who controls the purse strings) to provide annual funding for the system. AB 2660 contains language allowing small rural counties with resource constraints to collaborate with other counties for purposes of this activity to minimize their expense and effort.
This law passed the Assembly with no votes against it. It has been on Gov. Newsom’s desk for weeks, but is still unsigned. The legal changes within it will revitalize and support a reliable system, able to produce real insight into these tragedies, allowing intervention and preventive programming. It must be signed by Gov. Newsom.