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San Antonio Express-News: Congress OKs Doggett bill aimed at abuse of children

 January 4, 2013

A bipartisan bill aimed at reducing child fatalities from abuse or neglect has been passed by the Senate, clearing the way for the creation of a national commission on an issue that has disproportionately affected Texas and Bexar County families, according to advocates and state officials.

The Protect Our Kids Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan, calls for the creation of a 12-member commission that will study a host of issues around deaths related to child abuse and neglect, from the adequacy of current programs to more effective prevention methods.

“Texas has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect fatalities in the nation,” Doggett said in a news release. “The Protect Our Kids Act will help provide thoughtful consideration of the steps we can take to better protect vulnerable children. Working together in a bipartisan way, we can make meaningful progress on this troubling issue.”

According to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, 231 children died from abuse or neglect in Texas in 2011, representing a 124 percent increase in the past 15 years.

The state saw only a 19 percent growth in its child population during the same period, said Madeline McClure of TexProtects, an Austin child advocacy group.

Advocates say child deaths from abuse or neglect are a major concern in Bexar County, which saw a record number of such fatalities — 20 — in fiscal year 2011.

Last year witnessed numbers almost as grim: 19 children died from maltreatment in 2012.

McClure, who testified before Congress in support of the bill, said the commission will come up with standardized definitions and measures of what constitutes maltreatment that leads to death.

“We know that shaking a baby until it dies is abuse, but what about the mother who falls asleep and her 4-year-old runs out the door and gets hit by a car?” she said. “More important, members will look at the root causes of abuse and neglect. We now have real data coming out of the social sciences, so they'll be able to identify and propose more effective interventions.”

The most recent high-profile case in Bexar County involved the Dec. 27 death of 5-year old Josiah Williams, who officials say was beaten and starved.

Police arrested Charleston Williams, the boy's biological father, and his stepmother, Crystal Williams, on felony injury to a child charges two days after the boy's death.

According to police, the medical examiner found signs of serious abuse, malnutrition and neglect, including bruising all over Josiah's body.

Commission members will make recommendations on ways to reduce child maltreatment deaths, according to Doggett, who originally authored the legislation in 2011 and introduced an improved version in 2012. The bill was passed by the House on Dec. 19.

“It's definitely something that is needed here in Bexar County,” said Yolanda Valenzuela, vice president of Child Advocates San Antonio, which advocates for neglected and abused children in the Child Protective Services system.

“When you bring 12 heads together, hopefully they will come up with better prevention strategies,” Valenzuela said. “What's happening now is we're just reacting after abuse or deaths have taken place, instead of preventing it from happening. We need to catch (abuse) early, vs. putting a Band-Aid on it after the fact.”

The bipartisan commission will include six members appointed by President Barack Obama, three by the House and three by the Senate.

Each member will be required to have experience in one or more areas relevant to child maltreatment.

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