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News & Events

May 9, 2014

At least 1,500 children die in the United States every year, the result of abuse and neglect. In many cases, those deaths might have been prevented, if social workers had the proper training and the ability to recognize the risks, according to a new study.

“The things that concern me most are that workers don't know that children are most likely to die from neglect, and they don't know that moms are most likely to be responsible for their children's deaths,” says Dr. Emily M. Douglas, associate professor of social work ,and author of the study, “Child Maltreatment Fatalities: Perceptions And Experiences Of Child Welfare Professionals.”

The study, conducted from September 2010 to January 2011, queried 426 child welfare professionals in 25 states. Of those, 123, or 27 percent, had experienced a case in which a child was mistreated and died. Dr. Douglas just had the sixth and last paper published from this study. From 10-15 children die in Massachusetts each year from abuse or neglect, she says.

In most cases, Dr. Douglas adds, those children died of supervisory neglect. “This may be that a parent is sleeping while a toddler is walking around and falls out a window,” says Douglas, who has taught at Bridgewater for eight years. “These are things like asking a 3-year-old to supervise an 18-month-old in the bathtub. That's a recipe for disaster.”

In 30-50 percent of cases in which a child dies, the family is known to child-welfare services. Sadly, many professionals are not trained to recognize risk factors. In the study, Dr. Douglas says, professionals responded that the cases were closely monitored, but that they wouldn’t have done anything differently. “Workers just aren't getting the preparation that they need, and every time that a child dies who is known to the state's child welfare agency, there's some kind of major crisis.”

The answer to the problem may exist on several levels, says Dr. Douglas, who has taught graduate level courses about child abuse and neglect fatalities and will be teaching a freshmen honors colloquium on the topic in the fall. She says state legislatures need to make training a priority, schools of social work need to teach new workers to recognize high-risk families and professional organizations, like the Child Welfare League of America, can help by putting the problem in front of schools of social work and child-welfare agencies.

More information about Dr. Douglas' work can be found here(Steve Ide, University News)

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