Headlines across the nation continue to mark the destruction and loss of life... but not from a natural disaster, rather a man-made one. The Oklahoma child welfare system became the focus recently after the death of Serenity Ann Deal -- a little girl killed by her father after being returned to live with him -- which then contributed to the suicide of a devoted child welfare worker.
It seems week after week news of other child fatalities permeates the media. Coverage of high-profile cases in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Prince William, Va., and Miami, illustrate our collective inability to keep children -- and even those who protect them -- safe.
As numerous headlines and the data on child abuse fatalities suggest, these victims may represent the early stages of a tsunami of child traumas and deaths. In fact, the Government Accounting Office released new estimates showing a 22 percent jump in the number of child fatalities from abuse and neglect -- 1,770 in 2009, up from 1,450 in 2005.
Unfortunately, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg. The economic strain on families and the child welfare system is creating a perfect storm as federal and state budgets bring cuts to major programs that support and protect vulnerable children... just when stressed and struggling families need the help the most.
A cursory look at headlines also reveals the issues that are stressing and undermining the fragile structures designed to keep children safe:
• New Jersey Star-Ledger: "Victims of Child Abuse Overlooked in Christie Budget Cuts".
• The Sacramento Bee: "Budget Cuts Slow Reforms at Sacramento County's Child Protection Agency".
• Stars and Stripes: "Reports of Family Violence, Abuse Within Military Rise".
• Omaha World-Herald: "Midlands Voices: Privatized Child Welfare Has Failed".
• Philadelphia Inquirer: "Inquirer Editorial: An Expensive Budget Cut".
• The State Column: "No Child-abuse Prevention Funds for Florida".
We can start rewriting the headlines and avert further catastrophes. First though, we as a nation -- parents, social workers, police, clergy, neighbors, business owners and relatives -- must become outraged. Man-made disasters like these can be prevented, but it will take a fortified community response to help protect and support our youngest citizens... and those who serve them.
That means strategic investments in child abuse prevention need to take place. Parents must avail themselves of programs designed to teach parents to be great parents. Neighbors, friends, pastors, teachers, doctors and extended families must step in and help identify and prevent abusive situations. The systems serving children and families -- education, health, court, child welfare and juvenile justice -- must work most closely together to ensure that the needs of children aren't getting lost in bureaucracy. And child welfare workers must receive the support, training and guidance to be successful.
But if our only answer is that child protection is solely the job of an overworked and underfunded system, then we are destined to continue failing our kids and the death toll will keep mounting.
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