Panel Gets Divergent Counsel on Best Way to Prevent Abuse

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Byline: Cheryl Wetzstein

Congress heard conflicting advice last week about how to improve the nation's major law on preventing child abuse and neglect.

State and federal governments are funding only half of the $5.2 billion it costs to do the job, child welfare expert Charles Wilson told the House Education and Workforce subcommittee on select education last week.

The panel, led by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, held its first hearing on the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which was last considered in 1996.

CAPTA funds child protective services, counseling for troubled families, child-abuse prevention networks and research into ways to prevent child abuse.

"The incidence of child abuse and neglect exceeds the capacity of our system to respond," said Mr. Wilson, who spoke on behalf of the National Child Abuse Coalition and the National Call to Action child-abuse prevention group.

CAPTA's funding should rise at least $2.6 billion to cover "the spending gap" in child-abuse investigations and services, said Mr. Wilson.

Deborah Strong, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Michigan, seconded the call for greater funding, since "less than half of child victims of abuse and neglect receive services."

Other witnesses told Congress that preventing child abuse required things other than money or staff.

The biggest problems are the social workers' inability to monitor endangered children and their naive ideas about people's desire to change bad behavior, said Richard J. Gelles, a family violence expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.

"The weakest link of the child welfare system is the individual worker," he said. Too many social workers assume that parents want to and will change their abusive and neglectful behavior - especially if there are "sufficient resources," he said. But research shows that such change is very difficult, and there's no evidence that says that offering expensive and intensive family preservation services reduces child abuse, he said.

CAPTA could be more effective if social-worker training was improved, and if children and families were monitored more closely - most child-welfare workers are unable to visit children even once a month, even though this is what CAPTA recommends, he said. …