UA student group discovers flaw in child abuse reporting practices

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA)–After an eight-month research process, a University of Arkansas student journalism group discovered a flaw in the state’s reporting system concerning child abuse deaths.

“When we talked to the experts, none of them were surprised by our findings, which I thought was particularly [saddening],” said Emily Thompson, a student who was a part of the research team.

The students found that around 20% of Arkansas child abuse deaths weren’t reported in 2017, including one involving an infant in Fayetteville. To check the claim, students scoured through the official list of 2017 child deaths. They looked at news reports, social media accounts and GoFundMe accounts to find more deaths. They also searched to see if criminal charges were filed in each instance.

“It was a good investigative report because it did bring to light that some of the cases we were investigating weren’t being reported to the state,” said Sgt. Tony Murphy of the Fayetteville Police Dept. “Somehow…it fell through the cracks. If there was a child death, the death wasn’t getting reported in the same way.”

Murphy said officers are required to call a special hotline when abuse is involved, and it wasn’t common knowledge statewide. A federal law stipulates that requirement, and that law is up for renewal in congress again this year. The journalism students wanted to finish their investigation as quickly as possible so state lawmakers could see the findings.

“These kids are often hidden in plain sight,” Thompson said. “They’re not school aged yet, and they’re often not in daycare, so they don’t have people besides their caretakers to see them on a daily basis to see the signs of abuse.”

Murphy said Fayetteville’s officers are now completely aware of the hotline process and make a concerted effort to abide by the statute. He said recent numbers are more reflective of the true nature concerning rare child deaths in Northwest Arkansas.

“Kinda the important part of this project is just because we found those eight [deaths involving abuse in 2017], there could definitely be more,” Thompson said. “That’s kind of the troubling part.”

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