In May, Christian Choate’s body was found in a shallow grave, buried under cement and lime near an Indiana trailer park. Investigators believe the boy died two years ago at age 13.
They also believe Christian’s father, who led police to the grave, had for years beaten the boy and kept him in a cage.
After Christian’s death, “police found letters he had written about how he wondered when anyone would check on him or give him any food or water,” Rep. Geoff Davis, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, said at a hearing Tuesday.
Christian’s tragic death is finally getting high-profile attention, as happened with 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose decomposing body was found in a bag near her home in 2008. Caylee’s mother, Casey Anthony, was recently judged not guilty of causing the toddler’s death.
But there are at least 1,770 U.S. children who died of maltreatment in 2009, and there are probably many more that were unreported, said Mr. Davis at the hearing. He and his colleagues asked a panel of experts what can be done to prevent these deaths, as well as learn lessons from past tragedies.
The answers included better data collection about child fatalities, stronger state support for child protection services and family support, and training for medical professionals so they can recognize signs of child abuse and neglect.
“Deaths due to neglect are especially underreported,” said Theresa Covington, director of the federally funded National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths at the Michigan Public Health Institute.
Neglect means leaving young children to drown in bathtubs, suffocating infants by getting drunk and falling asleep on them, or leaving children to die in hot cars or in a house that subsequently catches fire, said Ms. Covington. Another form of neglect is failing to seek prompt medical help for children who are obviously ill.
But states vary greatly in their handling of these issues, said Ms. Covington. “What Mississippi calls child abuse, Connecticut might call a sad accident, or vice versa.”
If more is known about child deaths, Ms. Covington said, states can take useful actions, such as teaching families how to prevent home fires, requiring proof of professional home visits with troubled families, and requiring emergency room personnel to report certain child-injury cases to child protective services.
Congress should create a national commission to end child abuse and neglect fatalities, so a national strategy can be developed on this issue, said Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund.
In a report released Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office said that 1,770 child deaths were reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) in 2009. However, it is likely that many more children - possibly 2,400 - have died from maltreatment, the watchdog agency said.
The NCANDS data “are just the tip of the iceberg,” added Dr. Carole Jenny, director of the child protection program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., who advocates specialized training on child abuse for pediatricians.