“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...” Children, each an amazing gift, are totally dependent on parents for love and comfort; for life and survival; for health and safety; for training and development; and for joy and laughter. 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 US involving nearly 7,000,000 children–that’s one incident every 10 seconds. Over 700,000 reports of child maltreatment are substantiated annually, but this number only notes the cases which are reported to Child Protective Services (CPS), 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. And what do the politicians say about American “Exceptionalism”? “The ultimate test of a moral society is how it cares for its children and what world it leaves them.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Of the 1,700 or so children who die each year from abuse and neglect, 50% are less than a year old, 75% are under three years old and 80% 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 new cases reported in just one year, lifetime cost estimates include a loss of worker productivity, increased health care and special education costs, and child welfare and criminal justice expenditures which all add up to $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 to properly protect, nurture and care for children while enabling their unique aptitudes, skills, talents and strengths to come to fruition; to bloom like a gorgeous flower. Decades ago, I received training in Child Protective Services, and I succinctly remember 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 been 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, federal Child Welfare Services (CWS) funding can only be triggered when a child is referred to as a “victim of abuse and/or neglect”. 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, (i.e., healthcare professionals, teachers, family, neighbors and friends), an early detection system would work, especially if it is not a “punitive” system. Data reveals that in almost all cases of death associated with abuse/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 “I want mine”, “it’s about me”, “I’m entitled”, or however you want to describe this “me-centered” 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 needs 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...”