Why Better Data and Data Sharing Are Critical to Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities


By Theresa Covington, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance

There has been an important shift in the conversation around child abuse and neglect fatalities in recent years. Previously, our systems were designed to respond only after a tragedy occurred. Today, however, with the support of new public policy and greater knowledge, we are beginning to think and act in terms of preventing child abuse tragedies before they occur. 

Effective prevention efforts, however, are reliant on improved data and data sharing between child support agencies. This includes current and comprehensive numbers on child abuse and fatalities and their causes in order to identify those most at risk.

In 2016, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, charged by Congress and the President to develop a national strategy to eliminate child maltreatment deaths, released a groundbreaking report. In it, we highlighted the fact that, if our nation does nothing different to prevent these tragedies, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 U.S. children will die from maltreatment each year. Some experts, however, estimate the real number may be much higher.

Why the discrepancy?

There is currently no standard, mandated reporting system for child abuse or neglect deaths in this country. Definitions, investigative procedures, and reporting polices vary from state to state. Some states may classify a drowning death as a neglect fatality while others may classify it as an accident. 

That is why the Commission included in its recommendations the need to create uniform standards for fatality reporting, better sources of data on risk and protective factors, and policies to encourage real-time data sharing across agencies.   

For example, the Commission learned that the highest risk factor for an abuse or neglect fatality was the age of the child, with infants and toddlers most likely to suffer a maltreatment death. A call to a child protection hotline, regardless of the disposition, is also a strong predictor of a later child abuse or neglect fatality. And yet, all too often, child protection workers “screen out” certain calls even among these higher risk groups. Even if screened in, data sharing policies may prohibit public health and other human services from learning about these high-risk children and making sure supports are put in place to help the family better support their children.   

With passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, states are mandated to accurately quantify child maltreatment deaths and develop prevention plans to mitigate them. And yet, the federal government has not yet developed a national, standardized counting framework to assist in this effort.  There has also been no federal effort to encourage and support states in the development of fatality prevention plans. 

Outdated data (many government agencies are currently reporting data that is two to three years old) and the inability to see data across systems also impedes the ability of staff on the ground to share real-time information and inhibits research that could lead to better policies and practices. 

More and more, non-governmental agencies, including media outlets and nonprofits, are working to fill these data gaps.

For example, The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news site focused on children, youth and families, launched an ambitious data and reporting project in 2017 to examine where at-risk children go when they are removed from home due to abuse.  Entitled “Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families,” their research draws upon multiple sources, including information requests with each state and the District of Columbia, as well as federally collected data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).

The Annie E. Casey Foundation annually publishes The KIDS COUNT Data Book, a ranking of states on 16 key measures of child wellbeing. They offer the best available data and statistics on the educational, social, economic and physical wellbeing of children at the local, state and national levels.

Predict-Align-Prevent is a new nonprofit that is helping communities identify and share fatality data and other socio-economic community data to better predict areas at highest risk and then develops prevention programs rooted in a health equity/public health framework.

Having current and comprehensive data is critical, however, data sharing among organizations is equally critical.

In a recent article, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted: “Sharing data between health care and child welfare systems is vital to help provide the highest-quality and most continuous care possible for children in protective custody.” They outlined the importance of ensuring appropriate agreements are in place between medical care providers and child protective services caseworkers to address data privacy and security, and comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

A new report from the Data Quality Campaign and the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education also finds that states that share data among child welfare and education agencies have a better chance of lessening some of the barriers foster care students face. The report details which states (currently 24, plus the District of Columbia) securely link K-12 data systems with foster care data systems to provide foster care students with crucial supports like assisting with timely enrollment.

In our modern, data-driven society, we must utilize the tools, including a standardized, national data system to classify, quantify and analyze child abuse and neglect incidents and their outcomes in order to get a clearer picture of children at risk. And, we must bring innovation to the ways in which we share data across multiple systems to ensure that everyone has the information they need to help children succeed.

With the reauthorization of the Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) on the horizon, the federal government has the opportunity to develop national standards for data and data-sharing that can help practitioners have access to the information they need to prevent child deaths before they occur.

Theresa Covington is director of the Within Our Reach office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She also is the director of the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention and previously served as a commissioner on the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Social Change.

Latest Proposal Targeting Immigrants Impacts Families in Need


By Theresa Covington, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance

A little known immigration policy called the “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” enables immigration officers to determine whether an applicant for a green card or an individual seeking to enter the U.S. on a visa are likely to access welfare, TANF, or other government support. This determination can impact the decision-making in who is allowed to enter the country.

In the past, however, there have been exceptions to the public charge grounds. Because our country believes everyone should have access to basic needs, such as nutrition, health care and housing, use of publicly-funded programs that provide access to these have been excluded from the public charge determination.  Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have even eliminated the federal five-year waiting period for lawfully residing children and pregnant women allowing them to access both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

That is about to change.

The Trump Administration has proposed an expansion to the list of publicly-funded programs that immigration officers may consider in determining if an immigrant is likely to become a public charge. The list now includes basic needs programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 housing assistance and federally subsidized housing. The new proposal would also consider any use of a cash assistance program (not just TANF and SSI).

The new rules are expected to take effect as soon as October 15, 2019. It is expected that 8.3 million children will be at risk of losing benefits from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Five and a half million of these children have serious medical conditions, including asthma, epilepsy and cancer.  Losing benefits will put all of these children at greater risk for bad health outcomes. Is this what our nation wants? 

Imagine if these draconian rules had been in place after the Holocaust when many survivors emigrated to the United States with no family and no money.  People like Elie Wiesel who survived Auschwitz and came to the U.S. in 1956 as a penniless teenager. He went on to author 40 books about the Holocaust and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Jan Koum was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old. His family was so poor that they relied on food stamps to eat. Jan went on to found WhatsApp, which was recently acquired by Facebook for more than $19 billion. Koum has donated generously over the years. He donated 12.6 million shares of Facebook to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation between 2014 and 2016. He also gave $114 million of his fortune to the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund in 2016.

We are a nation of immigrants. Our strength is based on our diversity and the uniquely American belief that anyone can succeed and achieve the American Dream. The majority of immigrants come to America with the goal of finding freedom – freedom to work, freedom to care for their families, freedom of religion, and the freedom to live in peace. 

Let’s not lose our compassion and care for all children, regardless of how they arrived in America. Let’s make sure all children living here have the chance to not just achieve the American Dream, but to give back to our nation when they reach adulthood.  And let’s not lose what truly makes America great – our people.

About the Author

Theresa Martha Covington is the director of the Within Our Reach Office funded by Casey Family Programs and housed within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She is the director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, a position she has held at the Michigan Public Health Institute since 2003. Formerly, she served as a commissioner on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.  

Celebrating the Reintroduction of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act


By Theresa Covington, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance

Within Our Reach applauds the reintroduction of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit federally-funded child welfare service providers from discriminating against children, families, and individuals based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. Specifically, the bill:

Prohibits adoption or foster care placement entities that receive federal assistance from using the sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status of a prospective adoptive or foster parent, or from using the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child, to: (1) deny a person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent; (2) delay or deny the placement of a child for adoption or into foster care; or (3) require different or additional screenings or procedures for adoptive or foster placement decisions, including whether to seek the termination of birth parent rights or to make a child legally available for adoptive placement.

Most importantly, this bill recognizes the historic importance of the federal/state partnership in ensuring all children are protected from abuse and neglect. For child welfare providers, the paramount goal should be to provide safe, stable, nurturing family-centered relationships and environments for all children and youth in the child welfare system. If a child must be removed from their extended family of origin, policies and practices should work quickly and effectively to reunify children with their family of origin, or ensure that strong and healthy family connections can be maintained through a non-relative home.

Child welfare policy must reflect the diversity of our children and our society. With the nation facing a current shortfall in foster care homes, as reported by The Chronicle of Social Change, we strongly support policy decisions that increase the number of opportunities to connect all children with permanent, loving families. This includes ensuring that prospective parents who meet licensing standards are fully considered for foster care placement and adoption.

Currently, there are more than 440,000 children in the foster care system, with over 120,000 of them waiting for a permanent family. More than 20,000 youth “age out” of care each year without any family and with limited support and resources. 

The Every Child Deserves a Family Act will ensure that state-licensed child welfare provider organizations and the public agencies that oversee them will be guided by the universal principle of acting in the best interest of children, regardless of personal and religious beliefs.

About the Author

Theresa Martha Covington is the director of the Within Our Reach Office funded by Casey Family Programs and housed within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She is the director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, a position she has held at the Michigan Public Health Institute since 2003. Formerly, she served as a commissioner on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.  


May is Foster Care Month: Making Sure Every Child has a Foster Home


By Theresa Covington, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance

During National Foster Care Month this year, the groundbreaking show “Sesame Street” introduced a new character to support children living in foster care. Karli is the newest muppet and lives with her “for-now” parents Dalia and Clem.

Sesame Street is known for launching national conversations on difficult issues like autism and the challenges of growing up in foster care.

According to national statistics, on any given day, there are nearly 443,000 children living in foster care. In 2017, that number had risen to more than 690,000 children living in foster care. The majority of those children live in foster care, on average, for two years. Six percent have spent five or more years living in foster care. Over 40 percent of all children in foster care are under the age of six.

Juliette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of social impact, said in a statement about the introduction of Karli, “Fostering a child takes patience, resilience, and sacrifice, and we know that caring adults hold the power to buffer the effects of traumatic experiences on young children. We want foster parents and providers to hear that what they do matters – they have the enormous job of building and rebuilding family structures and children’s sense of safety.”

But challenges remain. There is no question that the foster care system is overburdened. According to a recent report from Fostering Media Connections and The Chronicle of Social Change, at least half of the states in the U.S. have seen their foster care capacity decrease between 2012 and 2017. Either these states have fewer beds and more foster youth, or any increase in beds has been dwarfed by an even greater increase in foster children and youth.

Despite these challenges, child welfare advocates are encouraged by the recent shift among policymakers to provide more front-end resources that would prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. These resources place an emphasis on keeping families together by providing the types of interventions, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, that can help families before they reach the crisis stage.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) is the first step in providing this continuum of care. It enables title IV-E funding to support promising mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment provided by a qualified clinician, and in-home parent skill-based programs, for up to 12 months for candidates for foster care and for pregnant or parenting foster youth.

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), co-chairs of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, also introduced two bills in honor of National Foster Care Month. The Supporting Adoptive Families Act would help prevent children from entering the foster care system by providing additional pre- and post-adoptive support services. The bill also directs the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to eligible entities to develop and implement state-sponsored post-adoption mental health service programs for all adopted children.

The Safe Home Act would address cases in which adopted children have been given away by their adopted parents without going through the child welfare system—many of which have resulted in the mistreatment of these children—by defining such conduct as a form of child abuse and neglect.

It will take all of these resources and more to build a 21st Century Child Welfare System that can ensure every child has a forever home.

About the Author

Theresa Martha Covington is the director of the Within Our Reach Office funded by Casey Family Programs and housed within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She is the director of the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths, a position she has held at the Michigan Public Health Institute since 2003. Formerly, she served as a commissioner on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.  

How the Public Child Welfare Agency Is Planning to Change Your Business Model


Jody Grutza of Grutza Consulting

State public child welfare agencies are making decisions right now about how child welfare services will be delivered over the next five years. Do you have a seat at the table? If not, grab your seat FAST. 

We know that the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) is creating a major shift toward prevention services, while also making changes to residential care and overall state funding structures that will impact service delivery models. This recently passed legislation requires public child welfare agencies to incorporate proposed reforms into their federally mandated strategic plans by June 30, 2019. 

From 2020-2024, public child welfare agencies will be implementing strategic plans that they are busily drafting at this very moment. Have you been a part of this planning process? 

Federally mandated reports, such as the Child and Family Services Plan (CFSP), that require public child welfare agencies to justify continued prevention funding also include a five year strategic plan. Although strategic planning is standard procedure for state agencies, FFPSA is shifting public child welfare’s strategic focus on expectations they will demand from the community-based providers per federal guidance. There is also the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR) that periodically reviews state child welfare systems for quality service delivery and monitors system performance through another federally mandated process, the state’s Program Improvement Plan (PIP). Ideally, the CFSP, CFSR and PIP are federal child welfare mandates that are integrated and consistently include stakeholder engagement. Although it varies, there are public child welfare agencies leading the charge in fully integrating their federal mandates with active stakeholder participation.

I have had the privilege of working with the Virginia Department of Social Services on the development on their CFSP, where they have ensured the consistent engagement of the community and providers as a central component of their entire planning process. At the end of the day, they know the success of their strategic plan depends on the ability of its community partners and providers to implement proposed reforms. Their goal is to design a fully integrated strategic plan that is inclusive of every federal requirement and its agency priorities where a compelling vision for child welfare across the state is clearly articulated. It has been exhilarating to help lead a public-private collaboration that is authentic, seamless, and diverse. Your state may be making similar efforts but if you haven’t been involved up to this point, I urge you to be proactive in that engagement. 

Let’s be honest, we’ve all had the best intentions to execute on a big project or large-scale planning efforts where we found ourselves falling short or running out of time. This is the reality of several state agencies—hard pressed to craft a five-year strategic plan in the midst of their daily, unrelenting pressures that leave little time to engage you in their complex planning processes. 

Sometimes we must be the ones that step up to support our state child welfare agencies, even when we are not asked, and especially if it is going to impact our how we serve our children and families. 

How to Ensure a Seat at the Table

  • Contact your state public child welfare agency and ask about the status of the CFSP. If that person is unaware, ask for their policy unit to inquire how you can serve as a planning partner.
  • If you are involved in the rollout of FFPSA, remind the public child welfare agency about the importance of integrating the FFPSA and the CFSP

Get a seat at the table now! Time is limited, offer to inform and design the report. Alliance for Strong Families and Communities members are a critical resource and hold a wealth of information that can guide them toward the right decisions.

Headshot of Jody GrutzaAbout the Author

Jody Grutza currently leads Grutza Consulting LLC, a specialized consulting firm that supports strategic development and implementation in human services. Grutza Consulting brings both public and private child welfare expertise to community and private providers in evolving their business models because of federal system reform efforts.

She has more than 15 years of expertise in planning strategic initiatives, mobilizing high-level teams to execute them seamlessly, and a track record of delivering on national and local system and policy overhauls. She headed administration, strategic planning, and execution for county-wide community-based care for safety and well-being of 4K+ children. She also orchestrated public relations and strategic initiatives to maximize positive public view of programs and enhance services for national $165 million organization.


About this Blog

The goal of the Within Our Reach blog is to provide actionable advice for child welfare practitioners; a place to discuss policy trends and ideas for policy makers at all levels; and to provide leading commentary for any stakeholders involved in preventing child fatalities due to abuse and neglect.

As a space for conversation, the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities welcomes guest submissions from service providers and policymakers.

For questions or more information about guest submissions for this blog, contact us