When a child’s death is not accidental

This week John Devaney gave a CAPRA seminar about best practices in child death reviews. In particular, he talked about deaths (suspected to be) caused by abuse or neglect. According to UNICEF figures, every year 3500 children under the age of fifteen die in industrialized nations as a result of abuse. Surprisingly, more children die from chronic neglect than from physical abuse. And the younger a child, the more he or she is at risk of non-accidental death, with infants having a three times higher risk than those aged 1-4 years, who run twice as much risk as children aged 5-14 years. Another important take home message: when an adult is known to be violent towards one member of the family (e.g., the partner), chances are high that the violence extends to other family members (the children) as well. This means that children are often not ‘only’ witnesses to, but also victims of, domestic violence.

The number of non-accidental child deaths in a country can be seen as an indication of the effectiveness of a child protection system, Devaney said. Even though child protection systems have improved over time, there is still significant progress to make. For example, Devaney observes a focus on minimizing harm where a focus on maximizing children’s potential would be more comprehensive. Also, there is still a lot to gain in terms of information sharing and decision making to prevent child deaths. Finally, in the pursuit of safeguarding children, youngsters sometimes become nearly invisible as professionals tend to concentrate more on parents.

Child deaths and their circumstances are more and more systematically reviewed in order to learn about errors in the child protection system. When Devaney and colleagues ‘reviewed the reviews’, they found support for doing these evaluations. One of their main suggestions was that these learning processes should lead to more concrete changes in actions, instead of remaining lessons learned on paper. To read more about the background and their recommendations:

Devaney, J., Lazenbatt, A., & Bunting, L. (2011). Inquiring into Non-Accidental Child Deaths: Reviewing the Review Process British Journal of Social Work, 41 (2), 242-260 DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcq069

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