Society’s Bellwether Is the Care and Treatment of Children

Nelson Mandela said it simply and profoundly: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

In a country as wealthy, ingenious and resourceful as the United States, one would think that our care and treatment of children would be stellar, the very best. But that’s just not the case. Truth is, using Mr. Mandela’s axiom, I think America has lost its “soul.”

Let’s start with California. When analyzed for child well-being in four domains – Economic, Health, Education, and Family and Community Well-being – California ranks 40th of our 50 states. Among the alarming statistics from the 2014 California Kids Count Profile:

  • Nearly 25 percent live in poverty.
  • 51 percent in financially unstable families.
  • 73 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.
  • 72 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math.
  • Nearly 20 percent are struggling to complete high school or graduate with their class 

Nationally, we don’t look much better. The child poverty rate is slightly less than 25 percent, and 2.5 million children are homeless, one in every 30 children, which substantially increases the potential for child welfare services involvement. According to UNICEF, the United States has the highest child-poverty rate of the 24 Western industrial nations.

The stress associated with being homeless or living doubled up can exacerbate punitive parenting practices, leading to physical abuse, or compromise the ability of parents to meet their children’s basic needs, leading to neglect. Being homeless or precariously housed can also exacerbate other problems, including mental health and substance use disorders, which are common among child welfare involved families.

According to a 2011 World Bank report, the United States ranks 46th when it comes to infant mortality, coming in behind Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, even behind Korea and Cuba. Every year, twice the number of U.S. babies die on their first day alive than in all 27 European Union nations combined, although 1 million more are born there (4.3 million versus 5.3 million respectively). And yet, we have an entire political party that wants to cut off health insurance to millions of American children!

Academically, of the 57 industrialized nations, the United States ranks 23rd in math and reading competency. The United States ranks 22nd amongst 24 industrialized countries in terms of literacy, the number of books per family and family emphasis on reading.

Most alarming to me, having spent four and a half decades serving children who are victims of trauma: In our country, every ten seconds there is a report of child abuse or neglect. That is three million per year involving six million children and youth; nearly one million sustained cases of child maltreatment per year.

According to UNICEF Child Report Card, of the 24 economically advanced countries, the United States ranks dead last with regard to Children’s Health and Safety, and second to last with regard to children and youth risk prevention.

Not only does this speak ill of our country’s treatment and value of children, it comes at tremendous social, emotional, mental, physical and financial costs. In the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), individuals who reported a high number of adverse childhood experiences had a life expectancy two decades less than those reporting no “ACE.” The presence of adverse experiences dramatically increased risk for heart disease, liver disease and other life-threatening maladies specifically tied to reported child abuse.

Children and youth victims of child abuse are 60 percent more likely to become alcohol and/or drug abusers than the general population. In one study, 80 percent of 21-year-olds reporting child abuse had been diagnosed with at least one mental disorder. Two- thirds of individuals in substance abuse treatment nationally report being victims of child abuse.

In 2012, state agencies identified an estimated 1,640 children who died as a result of abuse and neglect – between four and five children a day! According to the KidsCount, 70 percent of these deaths were children two years old or younger, and 80 percent were under five. Additionally, 80 percent of child abuse deaths were at the hand of a parent or parent figure.

The financial impact of child abuse and neglect is staggering. For new cases in 2008 alone, lifetime estimates of lost worker productivity, health care costs, special education costs, child welfare expenditures and criminal justice expenditures added up to $124 billion. This could send 1.7 million children to college!

I’m afraid that America has “sold its soul,” sacrificing its children on the altar of greed and the pursuit of wealth for a favored few. I find it rather paradoxical and very sad that so many citizens of the “red” states strongly embrace “family values,” while most of those states post the worst records for child well-being. If their political leaders were sincere, the opposite would be true.

April is National Month of the Child and Child Abuse Prevention Month. Let this be a reminder that we must persevere in restoring the “soul” of our society and improving the outcomes for our children and youth.

There is no higher priority than this. Let us be haunted by the words of Nelson Mandela: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services. 

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