Few news reports are more depressing than those chronicling the death of a child. Perhaps the only thing more heartbreaking is when such a death was preventable.
While the full details of the death of NFL star Adrian Peterson’s 2-year-old son are still being uncovered, here is what we do know. Joseph Robert Patterson, who was living with the boy’s mother, has been charged with aggravated assault on an infant. He had previously pleaded guilty to assault in a case involving a woman and a young child. Among the most serious allegations, his former romantic partner accused him of injuring her child during spankings and becoming violent with her when she intervened. Patterson was also subsequently arrested for violating an order of protection instructing him to stay away from the woman and her family. By agreeing to attend counseling, Patterson was able to avoid jail time. One year later Adrian Peterson’s son is dead.
Consider this: If Joseph Robert Patterson had been found guilty of a sex crime against a young child, he would have been listed in the National Sex Offender Registry , but presently no such national registry exists for child abusers.
Although the launch of such a registry has been discussed for years, efforts have consistently bogged down over concerns about cost, privacy and debates over states’ rights. At present, each state has its own system for tracking abusers, but there is no national uniformity, meaning someone listed in a database in Nebraska can relocate to New York and his or her record is unlikely to follow. Further complicating matters, some states do not track abusers by state but by county, meaning an abuser doesn’t even have to cross state lines to try to outrun his or her past. Because states often vary the language in their penal codes, creating a national registry would require a measure of cooperation and faith in the federal government that seems laughable given the current tone of discourse in Washington.
But a move toward a national child abuse registry could save lives.
When asked specifically what could possibly have been done differently to save the life of Peterson’s son, Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, replied: “It’s not just a matter of looking at what went wrong with this case. It’s a matter of looking at what does this case tells us about what goes wrong for the 1,500 kids who are abused to death every single year. The dynamic isn’t so different [for those kids]. Somehow a child was left with a caregiver who was completely overwhelmed and unable to care for that child and had shown no impulse control in the past.”
She continued, “I think that the takeaway ought to be for all of us that these deaths are preventable. If we know that someone has previously victimized a child, that should be our first clue that that person may not be able to be safely left caring for other children, and their contact with children may need to be supervised by another adult.”
Huizar added that the move toward “differential” strategies for addressing allegations of abuse and neglect has created new challenges in the movement to end child abuse. Because of concern that families were being broken up over abuse allegations that could have been resolved through parenting classes and family counseling, many states have begun to move away from cataloguing what are deemed minor abuse allegations. This means that if a parent or caregiver engages in what is considered a lower-level form of abuse or neglect, but eventually acknowledges the behavior was inappropriate and agrees to counseling or classes, then he or she may not be included in the state’s abuse registry. From Huizar’s perspective, this can lead to disaster.
“One of the things we know about child abuse fatalities is typically there’s a pattern of escalating violence over time,” she said. “So it may start out with striking the child, then striking the child and leaving a bruise, then shaking the child, then eventually breaking a bone, and then eventually the child is killed.” Patterson’s case showed precisely that kind of escalation.
Huizar drew parallels to domestic violence between partners. “We don’t say, ‘Well, it’s nothing because he only slapped her’ or, ‘It’s not important because he only shoved her,’ because the shove or the slap today is the strangulation or homicide of tomorrow, and we have to think about child abuse the same way,” she said. “If there’s repeated and escalating violence we have to be able to identify it, to track it, to intervene, so those children are protected.”
Huizar is hopeful that the passage of the Protect our Kids Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in January, will make a difference. The law establishes a national commission focused on reducing child abuse fatalities and should help reignite conversation about a national child abusers registry. Trying to prevent child abuse seems to be one of the few issues that leaders and legislators from both major parties can agree on. Huizar noted that the Protect Our Kids Act was championed by a bipartisan coalition that included Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) and Dave Camp (R-Mich.). Former Democratic Massachusetts senator John Kerry, now secretary of state, also was a lead sponsor.
“We are fortunate that there are people that care about this,” Huizar said. But then she added: “The unfortunate part is when there is partisan bickering on the Hill about other matters, whether it’s budgetary or health care [or] these other things, the easiest thing to get pushed aside are children’s issues. I think it’s important for folks to remember that while all of these other big policies are important, there are still children dying every day in the U.S. from having been abused to death, and they deserve attention and they deserve the attention of the Congress.”