by Amy Templeman, director of the Alliance’s Within Our Reach Office
An essential resource for professionals in the child welfare field are the voices of those with lived experience who are willing to share their stories. Matthew Peiffer in Indiana is one of those heroes. Matthew’s resilience in the face of tremendous adversity has given him the passion and drive to speak out for system reforms even after facing some of the most challenging life circumstances.
Matthew Peiffer and his two sisters were adopted at a young age. Their adoptive parents abused them physically and sexually for almost thirteen years. When they were finally removed from their adoptive parents, they were placed into separate foster care homes and institutions. Matthew, who is now 23 years old, aged out of the foster care system. His younger sister Emily did not make it out. She died by suicide at age 18.
The experiences of Matthew and his sisters are horrific and tragic and are shared by too many children in the child welfare system. In its groundbreaking report released in 2016, the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities noted that, on average, between 1,500 and 3,000 U.S. children die from maltreatment every year. These numbers have remained constant for years because for too long, our systems have been geared to addressing child abuse and neglect only after harm has occurred.
A new and innovative demonstration initiative is aiming to change that. Child Safety Forward, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, includes five sites across the nation who are utilizing comprehensive and evidence-based strategies to identify those children most at risk and develop targeted steps to strengthen supports and address those risk factors.
A key element to the strategy is the integration of the voices and experiences of youth and families involved with child welfare.
As Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau recently noted: "Young adults with lived experience are the experts in the child welfare system. Any meaningful change in the child welfare system must happen with youth and young adults as our partners.”
Matthew is one of the young adults helping provide that important perspective. He serves as a member of the Advisory Council for the Indiana Department of Health (IDOH), one of the five sites for the Child Safety Forward initiative. His experiences and perspective have been a valuable tool in the development of IDOH’s implementation plan to reduce child abuse and maltreatment.
For example, Matthew shared details of attempts that he and his sisters made to reach authorities to let them know of the abuse they were experiencing. As young children they were often locked in their rooms for hours and deprived of food. They were home schooled and rarely encountered other adults. Matthew would sometimes call 911 and hang up. He also managed to get out and vandalize his adopted parents’ car with the hope that the police would notice their plight and take them away. In both cases, law enforcement would show up but wouldn’t enter the house and would only talk to the children with the parents present, so there was no chance for the children to seek help.
In response, Matthew is providing training seminars for law enforcement today on what to look for when visiting a home where abuse might be suspected.
Matthew has also spoken out about the need for better data to address children at risk, a strategy which is receiving emphasis in Indiana’s plans for Child Safety Forward. As IDOH notes in its draft implementation plan, “The lack of standardization in investigation practices, including incomplete investigations, limits our understanding of the causes and circumstances related to child maltreatment related fatalities, Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUIDs), and youth suicide. It also leads to incomplete and inconsistent data. Quality and accurate data allow us to better understand and address risk factors.”
IDOH’s efforts to collect and analyze data, bring in the voices of those like Matthew with lived experience, and work collaboratively across the community to develop new models for addressing child fatalities and serious injuries from maltreatment will provide what has been sorely lacking in previous attempts – the identification and evaluation of evidence-based practices.
Coupled with the federal government’s focus on preventing foster care and requirement of statewide fatality prevention plans in the Family First Prevention Services Act, these actions will add up to a new knowledge base on best practices and what works to reduce tragedies like those experienced by Matthew and his sisters.
Amy Templeman is director of the Within Our Reach office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Within Our Reach is supported by Casey Family Programs. A version of this article appeared on February 3, 2021 in Youth Today.
Disclaimer: This product was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-V3-GX-K005, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.