The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities has just released a constructive report. It is drafted by officials and experts across the political spectrum. The Commission spent two years and many hearings as part of its inquiry. Ironically, it is similar in many respects to a report issued in 1995 and based on three years of study. Both have made constructive recommendations. Most of those from 1995 have not been effectively followed. And it is likely to be the same for the recent one, notwithstanding its unusual breadth of support. The paralysis of Washington D.C. is too pervasive to expect real action to address these issues.
We know that about six children die from abuse or neglect every day, with 3/4 of them under the age of 3, and 10 times that number suffer serious injury -- over 150,000 children annually. Regrettably, the required floors of the federal law requiring compliance to receive billions in federal money are consistently ignored by the Department of Health and Human Services, as documented in the report Shame on U.S. issued recently by our Children's Advocacy Institute. We are told this is because current funding for child protection undertaken by the states is woefully inadequate, that those attending these problems have untenably high caseloads, and investigations are inadequate. The public does not know that most child abuse deaths occur after reports of prior abuse have been received by state agencies That fatal nonfeasance is perpetuated by the excessive concealment of the entire system -- impeding democratic accountability.
Superficially, this is an area that should be above partisan bickering. From conservatives we have "family values" and traditional notions of "law and order" and the prosecution of criminal offenses. For liberals, we have the empathy for those who suffer, a desire to end poverty and a willingness to use state resources.
But in terms of profound reform we have both ends of the spectrum opposing or ignoring the real variables. What are they?
First, there is a culture that universally elevates adult prerogative over children -- except perhaps embryos. Where is the very simple right of a child to be intended by two adults? Almost half are not. That is for starters. There is much discussion about "marriage" and homosexual inclusion and the right of women to "control their bodies." These issues warrant attention, but compare all of them with the attention paid to children and their most elementary right -- to be wanted by two people with some ability to provide for them.
Second, where is public education about parenting? Our high schools teach trigonometry -- I have not used that much over the last 50 years. Or wood shop, or volleyball or God knows what. But what about the difficulties and challenges of parenthood? How children can be injured or killed, from shaking an infant to leaving them in the car seat while we shop for three hours to what they should eat and how they learn. Virtually nothing. And for those concerned that sex education will encourage sex among teenagers, a course including four hours locked in a room with a baby crying at high volume -- which every parenting curriculum should include -- is a bit of an antidote. Our bill to begin that process was vetoed by then Governor Gray Davis as a subject within the province of faith and families. Sure. That is working.
Third, we have child poverty. We have over 40% unwed births and high divorce rates -- so that only an ever decreasing minority of children will have their fathers through their childhood. And the median child support paid by absent fathers is under $60 per month per child, a tiny fraction of the cost of that child to our many millions of single mothers. We have the largest population of impoverished children in the developed world. Certainly the trillion dollars for the F-35 fighter or our 12 military bases in Germany may have some merit, but more than this? The Children's Defense Fund has proposed very modest measures that would have a major effect on that incidence: A minimum wage that is not cut every year by inflation but restores it to a reasonable level, a slight increase in food stamps and TANF, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Fourth, we have drug abuse. Fully 70% of the child abuse cases in the dependency courts involve parental drug addiction -- typically meth, joined increasingly by opiates. We understand the need to reduce our prison population and what people ingest is difficult to police. But those of us who have seen what addictive drugs do have a different view. They remove paternal/maternal instinct. They create adults desperate for a fix and for the money to provide it. Maybe we need to consider radical alternatives, perhaps even state provision of substitutes or even safe doses of the narcotic to those who are addicted. One traditional American lesson is that an industry can be destroyed or ruined through predatory pricing, something the government is uniquely suited to institute. It can even arrest its competitors. Perhaps we then isolate the addict who no longer robs as much and certainly has less need to sell to new recruits. Maybe such an option is tricky, but we need to talk about it and all other options to prevent the too common child victimization result.
These four factors correlate most strongly with child abuse deaths and near deaths. And they are little discussed or studied, even by these two major reports. We need a cultural sea change to start to respect the miracle of child creation and its concomitant obligations -- and adult grouping prerogative be damned -- these children are more important than any adult grouping dominating political discourse. We need to teach parenting -- why is that not important? And reduce child poverty, and find creative ways to address the drug scourge. In 50 years our great grandchildren will know what we did or did not do and the consequences. Why do we not conduct ourselves from that perspective? It will take a lot of us, many millions, to manifest empathy lines for those who follow us. And what is more important than that? What is more important than they?
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