03/21/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

The Most Tragic Consequence of Child Maltreatment

The abuse and neglect of children can have awful consequences that last a lifetime. And sometimes that lifetime is all too short. Child maltreatment kills.

This may be hard to believe, but we don't actually know how many children in this country die every year from maltreatment by a parent or caretaker. The federal government's key publication of statistics on the maltreatment of children acknowledges that "The effects of child abuse and neglect are serious, and a child fatality is the most tragic consequence." Yet each year, we only get an estimate of the number of fatalities.

The most recent estimate is for 2012, and suggests that there were about 1,640 child maltreatment fatalities. While the estimates show both the number and the rate increasing since 2010, comparisons from year to year are difficult. It was only in 2011 that federal law (the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act
P.L. 112-34) stated that states should report fatality numbers from a wider range of available data sources, including vital statistics, child fatality review teams, law enforcement, and medical examiners or coroners.

Of great concern is the number of fatalities among children who are known to our nation's child protection systems. If you look up the numbers of children who "exited" foster care in 2012, you will find that 327 left care because they died. But this includes children who died for any reason, not just due to maltreatment. And it doesn't include children who were known to child protection authorities but not brought into the child welfare system.

OK, you may think, but the federal government is probably holding states accountable on this issue. However, if you read the Children's Bureau's report to Congress assessing state performance in child protection, under the heading "Summary of Findings Regarding Keeping Children Safe," you will learn that maltreatment has consequences for physical and mental health, for educational achievement, and for trauma symptoms in children. Yet there is no mention in that summary that children may die. This most tragic consequence of child maltreatment is not a separately reported outcome measure, but is instead lumped together with other forms of maltreatment.

Let's think about the issue this way. Just one child death due to maltreatment is one too many. Yet we are losing children at the rate of one every 5.3 hours. And nearly three quarters of them are under three years old.

Doesn't this sound like a profound tragedy? What if child abuse and neglect were a disease affecting the health and well-being of 686,000 children a year, and killing one every five hours? I bet concerned citizens would be falling over themselves demanding action.

Well, some are. And as we prepare for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, observed each year in April, now would be a great time to join them. Here are four ways you can help:

• If you are a parent, SCAN can help you learn about protecting children.

• If you are a pediatrician, the American Academy of Pediatrics can help you advocate for child safety in your community.

• If you are a lawyer, the National Association of Counsel for Children can help you protect the rights of children involved in the courts due to abuse and neglect.

• If you are simply a concerned citizen who wants to make sure every child has a safe, permanent home, you can volunteer as a court-appointed special advocate or volunteer guardian ad litem and lift up your voice on behalf of child victims of maltreatment.

Get involved today, because children's lives are at stake.