November 3, 2011
“A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Having children makes one no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”
— Michael Levine
You know that you have a substantial domestic problem when news agencies an ocean away take note of it. It caught my attention, therefore, when the British Broadcasting Corporation recently completed a report titled, “Major Epidemic: The Untold Story of Child Abuse in the U.S.”
Using figures from the Department of Health and Human Services and from a recent report commissioned by the United States Congress, the BBC noted that there were a confirmed 1,770 childhood deaths in 2009 alone from abuse or mistreatment. The congressional investigation suggested that the number could be as high as 2,500, but using either number the figures place the United States last in the industrialized world.
According to the BBC investigation, 66 children die from child abuse or neglect every week in the industrialized world and four out of every 10 of them are American children. The rate is two and half times higher than the figure in Japan and three times higher than the figure in Germany. Those statistics don’t tell the entire story, however. While the rate in Ohio is about the same as the national average (2.4 children per 100,000), state figures vary from just a fraction of that in some small New England states to other states like Texas where the number is nearly twice the national average- five times higher than the rate in central Europe.
Those who are doing research in the area cite several reasons why the total is so high in the United States. To begin, those who are abused as children are shown to be at higher risk for abusing their own children later in life. A study in Texas found that adults who had been abused as children are seventy-four times more like to commit crimes against other people and six times more like to abuse their own children. This cycle strains the child protection system further with each successive generation.
For good or evil, the American child welfare system has, at its core, a basic principle that families should be kept together and that children should be left at home or returned home whenever it is possible to do so. Investigators, case workers and courts take these decisions very seriously and the best interests of the child are always paramount. Still, the system has only so many resources, only so many who can investigate and only so many dollars to place children in foster care or to provide services for families in need.
The reliance on government to prevent abuse is also cited as problematic because government intervention necessarily occurs after a complaint is received and therefore is usually reactive and not preventative. The prevention of child abuse and neglect requires proactive involvement from everyone who has contact with a child. Teachers, clergy, neighbors, friends and relatives are usually the first to know that a child is in danger. And while some professionals are mandatory reporters who are required to notify child protective services when they suspect abuse, the key people are often aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors.
Government intervention is becoming more preventative in nature. Health Departments and protective service agencies are increasingly working with young parents, or with families who have otherwise been identified as being at risk, to try to eliminate the stressors that often lead to child abuse. In Texas, local agencies visit young parents for well-baby checks and to provide early interventions. Locally, the Delaware General Health District provides a myriad of services to infants and their parents, the Delaware County Department of Job and Family Services provides prevention services that link families to local providers and the Juvenile Court operates the Moms Offering Mentoring Support (M.O.M.S.) program to assist teen mothers.
Reducing the nation’s alarming rate of child abuse will require active involvement by entire communities.
Providing support for young parents, providing encouragement for those parents who have stressors that lead to abuse and assisting those who may have mental health or substance abuse issues in finding help will aid in protecting the safety of children. If you know or suspect that a child has been abused or is being abused you can report that abuse to a local law enforcement agency or directly to the Department of Job and Family Services by calling 740-833-2300.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.