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SALT LAKE CITY — A federal commission efforting a national strategy to combat child abuse deaths is looking to Utah for ideas.
The 12-person Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities convened its latest in a series of public meetings in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, traveling across the country to learn about research into child abuse deaths as well as efforts to prevent tragedy.
Ultimately, the commission — formed with bipartisan support under the 2012 Protect our Kids Act — hopes to outline a national approach for tracking and then preventing abuse tragedy rather than leaving each community to respond individually, chairman David Sanders said.
"The number of children who are dying due to abuse or neglect, I think, is larger than people are aware of. It's not nearly as isolated an issue as people think," Sanders said. "This is an issue that I think drew the national interest of Congress and the president for a very good reason."
In order to get a comprehensive perspective, the commission is focusing on states with recently high numbers or children dying due to abuse and neglect, as well as states whose efforts seem to be yielding fewer child abuse deaths, Sanders said.
Utah is currently counted among the states with a low number of fatalities.
"We wanted to understand what's going on here and what can we learn that might be applicable to rest of the country," Sanders said following the first round of testimony Tuesday. "I think the ideas about how law enforcement, prosecution and child protection work together is a theme that we've heard, but it sounds like it may be even more developed here."
The number of children who are dying due to abuse or neglect ... is larger than people are aware of. It's not nearly as isolated an issue as people think.
–David Sander, chairman
Woods Cross Police Chief Greg Butler and Sgt. Adam Osoro briefed the commission on its recently adopted protocols for interviewing domestic violence victims to identify whether they or their children are at risk for even greater harm. The simple series of questions, taken from the Maryland Lethality Assessment Protocol, has already saved lives, they testified.
In its first use, police identified warning signs that prompted them to remove a Woods Cross woman and her children from their home, Osoro testified. Shortly after posting bail, the woman's husband returned to the home with a gun, likely intending to harm his family. He took his own life after finding the house empty.
"After our very first lethality screening, this woman is crediting this for saving her life and her three children," Osoro explained. "The very first one potentially saved four lives."
The protocol also collects vital information for prosecutors and the Utah Department of Human Services, domestic violence prevention administrator Jenn Oxborrow said.
"It gets us all speaking the same language," Oxborrow said.
For 30 years, Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Robert Parrish has seen one child abuse and domestic violence case after another. They are tragic to hear and increasingly difficult to prosecute. He wonders whether a very simple solution could be making sure parents know whom they can call when caring for their children becomes difficult.
"Parents don't even know what they are doing to their children. There are all these messages that aren't getting out to the parents," Parrish told the commission. "The main message that needs to get to all parents is there is no loss of face in calling for help."
To better understand what warning signs law enforcement and protective agencies may be missing, Parrish pointed to research like that of Dr. Kristine Campbell.
Campbell, a pediatrician at University Hospital who specializes in child abuse, briefed the commission on apparent gaps following intervention by child protective service workers, a hole that she believes is a missed opportunity to further help families. To illustrate the research, Campbell read from messages submitted by Utah mothers following a response by protective services.
"It was nice that they wanted to make sure that he was out of the house and that my kids were physically safe, especially in the immediate. But looking at the long-term repercussions of what happened, I think that should have been a higher priority," one woman had said.
The commission aims to present its findings to Congress and President Barack Obama in early 2016, then release a report later that year.
Commission members will discuss what trends they have seen emerging from the different meetings and what it could mean for national response when they meet Wednesday at the Salt Lake City Sheraton. The meeting is open to the public who register on the commission's website, eliminatechildabusefatalities.sites.usa.gov, or who tune in by phone or online.
So far this year the commission has held meetings in Arizona and Tennessee, and will visit Wisconsin in July and New York in August.