A University of Missouri researcher will spend more than a year looking into better ways to track cases of child neglect and abuse.

An estimated 1,700 children die of maltreatment annually in the U.S., but researchers including Associate Professor Paula Schnitzer think nearly that many more deaths should be attributed to abuse and neglect, and are not.

She wants to look for ways to identify cases of abuse that wouldn’t be evident on death certificates alone.

“What we think are missed primarily are deaths that are neglect related. Physical abuse is often easier to identify and determine … such as an inflicted injury to a child.”

The project will cross-reference data from the child death review efforts of 10 states in cases of children of age 5 and younger, with death certificate data maintained by the National Center for Health Statistics. By linking reports of abuse to death certificates for the children involved in those reports, a clearer picture could emerge of cases in which abuse or neglect contribute to death.

Schnitzer says having a more accurate count could make a difference.

“The ability to monitor over time what that number is so that when you have prevention programs you can then see if in the big picture those deaths are going down.”

Schnitzer says her earlier research has shown that some cases defy easy definition.

“Drowning is a really classic example. A one- or two-year old toddler who … mom thinks dad’s watching Johnnie, dad thinks mom’s watching or dad goes to the store, the child wanders off into a cow pond and drowns. Is that neglect, or is that just a really horrible accident?”

Schnitzer says she hopes to use the results to develop a weighting system to be applied to child deaths and reveal a better picture of how many children die in the U.S. from abuse or neglect.

The project will run for 13 months.