Denver Post Guest Commentary
Child abuse: Some rays of sunshine
By Jesse Wolff and Andrew Sirotnak
Sometimes the needle moves forward slowly, but it is moving nonetheless.
We now know that child maltreatment rates in the U.S. dropped significantly from the early 1990’s to 2006 according to the U.S. Department of Human Services as it recently released the 4th National Incidence Study (NIS-4) on child abuse and neglect.
The 26% drop reported in the study is indeed very good news. And yet, this remarkable report was released quietly on the internet without any fanfare.
This is a shame as mitigating child abuse truly saves lives and saves money.
As a society, often our only exposure to the world of child abuse and neglect is when a horrific case makes the evening news or there is a reported failure within the child protection system. Every case of abuse and neglect is serious and even one case should still be considered one too many. However, often we only hear this bad news. When something good comes along like a significant drop in national abuse rates, we need to hear that as well.
This report means the quality of life has improved for hundreds of thousands of children hopefully leading to better life outcomes (e.g. lower school dropout rates) which then result in a very meaningful economic benefit to society as well. For example, we know that adults who have experienced maltreatment as children have a 60% higher chance of living in poverty as adults than those who did not experience abuse. Reducing child abuse rates can truly change lives for the better.
It also means that evidence-based prevention and awareness programs work. The public is more aware of child maltreatment, is more proactive, and less tolerant. Your voice, actions, and concern have positively impacted the way children are treated.
The front line, community sentinels; our teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, parents, police, et al; are a very important component and are to be congratulated for their significant role in reducing child abuse rates. These professionals need continued support from our local and state governments.
Although we are pleased that some progress has been made, we simply can’t afford to be complacent. We have a long way to go and your continued focus, voice and investment is critical.
Economic distress and poverty contribute to the risk of child abuse and the full effects of the current economic downturn are not yet known. The NIS-4 study was completed at the peak of the business cycle in 2006. The economy has shed millions of jobs since then and this has been the deepest recession since the Depression. We are also still deployed in two wars and, as a result, many families have been disrupted. Colorado county budgets are eroding in areas that may affect child abuse rates – e.g. fewer public safety officials, child welfare domestic violence programs, after school programs.
Official child maltreatment statistics can lag up to two years. We know the progress made may not hold. We must do our best to improve upon the painstaking gains that have been made.
1) Our vision is to end child abuse and neglect in this country. Realistic? Maybe not. We need to try as, even with the drop in abuse, there were still over 1.25 million children who were maltreated in 2006 per the report. This strains the entire child protection system, from the courts to caseloads to foster care homes. Picture it as half of all the people in Metro Denver being maltreated in one year, every year.
2) Continue being a voice for children. Most people would agree investing in children is a core value in this country. Yet, our children’s share of the federal budget has declined by over 20% since 1960! Children receive less than 10% of all non-defense federal dollars yet they comprise almost 25% of our population. Children are simply not a national priority based on these measures. We feel they should be. We know that you do too. It is a question of will and priority for our political leadership.
3) We must find ways to grow our economy while shoring up resources for those in need. The simple fact is that rates of abuse and neglect are 2-3 times higher in homes with unemployed parents. Given the difficult economic period we are going through, our concern is that child maltreatment is increasing. We need to continue to invest in social safety net services for children and families who really need them.
Success breeds more success. Let’s continue our progress in reducing child abuse and neglect in America. Children have to be a priority even when times are tough. We owe it to ourselves and to them.
Jesse Wolff is CEO and president of The Kempe Foundation. Andrew Sirotnak, M.D., is executive director of The Kempe Center.
This online-only guest commentary was not edited.