03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Can Do Better -- Stopping Child Abuse Deaths

Letting go of an adult's hand and taking that first step, learning to tie a shoelace, riding a bike without training wheels -- all simple, precious moments in a child's life that should be cherished. Too often, however, children in America are robbed of these milestones because life is cut short.

In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt held the first White House summit on children. Though 100 Octobers have come since then, we still have far to go to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our nation's kids. The rate of child abuse and neglect deaths in the U.S. is much higher than in other rich democracies -- including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Tragically, some 2,000 children die each year in the U.S. at the hands of family members or others living with them. A new report from the Every Child Matters Education Fund shows that more than 10,000 children in the U.S. died from abuse and neglect from 2001 to 2007. In contrast, the number of American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is approaching 5,000.

While child abuse and neglect deaths total about five a day, experts believe the real number may be as much as 50 percent higher due to inconsistent record-keeping and different definitions of abuse and neglect in the states.

Especially heart-wrenching is that three-fourths of the children who lost their lives were under the age of four. Almost half were less than one. As many as half had previously been brought to the attention of protection authorities, but action was too late or too little.

While child protection workers are the first line of defense in protecting children in high-risk situations, their hands are often tied, because they lack the resources, support and training they need to successfully do their job. Caseloads in some jurisdictions are as high as 60 or more, even though national standards recommend 12 or fewer cases per worker to ensure that at-risk children receive the attention they need.

Whether abused and neglected children receive necessary protection -- and whether children are abused and neglected to start with -- is related to both poverty and geography. While a middle-class household income and well-educated parents do not guarantee a child's safety, a child living in poverty is 22 times more likely to be abused than those living in families with an annual income of $30,000 or more. And while children die from preventable deaths in every state, some states spend considerably more -- as much as a dozen times more -- than others to protect their youngest residents.

We know a great deal about preventing abuse and neglect and stopping related fatalities. When provided with services and appropriate supervision, the vast majority of potentially abusive parents can learn to safely care for their children. And many abused children who get help are resilient enough to overcome their history. But for many, the outcome is predictable: when childhood goes wrong, adulthood goes wrong, and the sad story of abuse, including death, repeats itself from one generation of troubled families to the next.

Children at grave risk of being killed require the protection of their government. We need a national approach for protecting children, because of the heavy toll exacted by abuse and neglect -- thousands killed, millions of lives ruined, costs of more than $100 billion a year.

While it's too late to help the children already killed, we can honor their memories by vowing to protect every child in danger. We can overcome inadequate funding and wide variations in capacity among states, by enacting federal policy committed to protecting children no matter where they live.

Child abuse and neglect are national concerns that deserve national solutions. Through the introduction of the We Can Do Better campaign, groups are coming together to raise awareness and press our nation's lawmakers to develop and fund solutions that will save children's lives. Among them are more providing support for the stressed families in which abuse and neglect are more likely to occur, modifying current confidentiality laws to allow greater public understanding every time a child dies, standardizing the way states define abuse and neglect, and providing the funding needed to adequately support child protection services.

To protect America's children is to safeguard the future of the country. It will take another forward-thinking President and Congress to again make it a national priority.