The ultimate test of a moral society is how it cares for its children and what world it leaves them.
Children, each an amazing gift, are totally dependent on parents for love and comfort, for life and survival, for health and safety. Every child embodies innocence, creativity, imagination, energy, unique skills and talents, and unimaginable potential.
And yet, on the day you read this article, eight children in America will die of abuse and neglect. It’s unimaginable.
Every year, there are three-and-a-half million reports of child abuse and neglect in the United States involving nearly seven million children – that’s one incident for every 10 seconds. Over 700,000 reports of child maltreatment are substantiated annually, but this number only notes the cases reported to child protective services, so the real number is unknown.
The good ol’ US of A ranks at the very bottom of all industrialized nations in regards to child safety, having the highest cases of child maltreatment per capita, infant mortality and childhood deaths from abuse and neglect.
Of the 1,700 or so children who die each year from abuse and neglect, 50 percent are less than a year old, 75 percent are under three years old, and 80 percent are abused at the hand of a parent. The number of adults who self-report being abused or neglected as a child is staggering, and so is the impact of suffering an adverse childhood experience on a person’s overall life. Those reporting six or more adverse childhood experiences, on average, live two decades less than those who report none.
For one year’s worth of abused kids, the monetary cost – calculating a loss of worker productivity, increased health care and special education costs, and child welfare and criminal justice expenditures – is $124 billion. Think how that money could have been used to improve our children’s quality of life rather than just patching up the damage caused by society.
So, what do we do about this?
First, somehow we need to re-instill the importance and value of children, and of parental/caregiver responsibility. Decades ago, I received child protective services training and remember well the number one predictor of potential abuse or neglect was the parental perception that children were there to serve the parent, which basically voids a parent’s sense of responsibility. This archaic viewpoint is still prevalent today and can even be observed in extreme religious groups who believe they need to beat their kids into submission and servitude.
Second, parents need to parent. I have recently been disturbed about what I perceive is a dramatic shift in thinking about children. While it is socially desirable to have children, the motivation seems more about adding to a parent’s list of possessions rather than as a sober, earnest, life-changing responsibility. Think about how many children are being raised by surrogates rather than their biological parents. On the other hand, given our current economic demands, it is really admirable to see the creative ways parents maintain their responsibility towards their children when a two-person income is necessary for survival.
Third, we need to abandon our “reactive” CPS system and implement an early intervention and prevention approach. Right now, most federal child welfare funding can only be triggered when a child is removed into foster care. How much better would it be to invest these funds in early detection, prevention and intervention?
In today’s society, there are so many eyes on our kids – healthcare professionals, teachers, family, neighbors and friends – that an early detection system would work, especially if it is not a punitive process. Data reveals that in almost all cases of death associated with abuse or neglect, somebody knew beforehand that a problem existed.
Finally, and probably the most daunting task, is to dramatically alter our cultural world view, priorities and values about community. Americans have become so myopic, self-centered, greedy and narcissistic, that our sense of priorities and community responsibility have become warped and totally eroded. Our me-centric thinking is destroying us as a society. Ending child abuse and neglect, and creating an environment wherein our children can flourish, is going to take a dramatic commitment to improving the quality of life for everyone, not just a favored few.
We’re talking about a major sea change here. There needs to be a commitment to make sure everyone has the opportunity to work and to receive a livable wage. There need to be clear pathways to end poverty, to promote determination and self-sufficiency. Everyone should have access to affordable, safe housing, and individual financial, physical and behavioral health wellbeing must be universally achievable. Everyone must work together to build healthy and strong communities committed to the safety and wellbeing of all children—our most valuable, precious resource.
Am I just being an idealistic dreamer? Yes and no. Is it realistic to see such a major paradigm shift in the immediate future? No. But is it possible? Absolutely. Do we have any other choice if we want to survive as a civil society? Remember, it’s all about the children: our future, our hope.
“I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile. You hold my hand, rough up my hair. It’s lots of fun to have you there...”