02/28/2012 07:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tallying the Costs of Child Abuse... Beyond Dollars

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dire but largely dispassionate report on the economic impact that child maltreatment has on the United States. A team of researchers examined domestic child maltreatment cases for the year 2008 and calculated all of the factors you might expect from economists -- health care costs, productivity losses, child welfare costs, criminal justice costs, and so on. All of that computation helped them find the "total lifetime economic burden" of child maltreatment in this country: a colossal $124 billion.

My first career calling was as a social worker, and I spent my early 20's working on child abuse and neglect cases, and so I have some personal context with which to view this report. What struck me most about it was not the staggering amount of money that child abuse costs the nation. We know, after all, that despite its often latent nature, the abuse and neglect of children by the people they count on most to protect them is a horrific and far too frequent reality. That its economic consequences are so high is hardly a surprise. More of a curiosity to me was the basis for the report, its genesis and underlying premise. Why quantify child maltreatment's economic costs in the first place? Must we make an economic argument as to why protecting the most vulnerable people in a society should be a matter of highest priority? Is a moral argument insufficient? Must we discover that stopping child abuse comes with an attractive ROI before we take steps to prevent it?

Within the developing world, we know all too well the connection between child maltreatment and economic reality. Much of the abuse of children that takes place in underdeveloped countries is due directly to the economic stress within families. Unable to cope with dire financial situations, parents take out their stress on their children in the form of physical abuse or in some cases by neglecting their role as care-givers and providers. Some even consign their children to days of hard and often exploitative labor because they need the money. This is a far cry from the perfectly acceptable practice of having their children work on the family farm or around the home, which is a widespread and productive practice within developing countries. The children who are maltreated are those who must endure dangerous and unsanitary conditions -- in sweatshops, squalid workhouses and even military training camps. The United Nations estimates that the number of children laborers -- children between the ages of five and 14 -- exceeds 215 million worldwide. More than half of those children are engaged in hazardous often fatal work, sometimes for as much as 12 to 18 hours a day.

Ironically for these families, the return on investment for child labor is actually a losing proposition. Research tells us that when a child enters the workforce prior to age 13, the child's future earnings at adulthood are reduced by as much as 20 percent. In effect, child labor is a contributing factor to perpetuating the cycle of poverty. In other words, even in the developing world, there is an economic justification for eradicating child mistreatment.

Child abuse in developing countries very often transcends its economic ties. In particular, young girls in many countries are subject to painful and traumatic cultural practices, including genital mutilation, as well as widespread sexual violence. Forced early marriages are a form of abuse, and child abductions are not uncommon.

In a recent ChildFund Alliance survey of more than 5,000 10-to-12-year-olds in developing countries around the world, children themselves raised child abuse as among the most serious threats to their well-being. When asked what they would do as president to make their country safer for children, one in four children (25.4 percent) said they would educate their nation's adults about parenting and child abuse. One in four. The response speaks volumes about the sweeping nature of child maltreatment throughout the developing world.


ChildFund raises awareness of education and its importance.

Among the many observations credited to Mark Twain is this one: "For every difficult problem, there is an easy solution... and it is almost always wrong." The fact is the issue of child maltreatment -- so entwined in the economic life of the poor, so much a part of cultural traditions and long-held gender bias, so pervasive across the continents -- offers no simple answers. Like so much of our success, solutions come most often on a community and individual basis. Raising awareness within a community about the consequences of maltreatment can reverse generations of maltreatment. Finding a sponsor for a child can mean that that child can stay in school -- the single best promise for breaking poverty's grip. Our work in connecting families with job skill training and micro-loans to start a new business can and does reduce a family's reliance on child labor. And our education and awareness programs at the community level are helping sensitize parents to the dangers inherent in many traditions.

Traveling in northern India not long ago, I met a 13-year-old boy from Firozabad, a city known for its glass beads and bangles. When he was five years old, Rajeev would awaken at 4 a.m. to work all day for 35 cents an hour in a bangle factory, breathing kerosene fumes and applying toxic chemicals. The physical toll it has taken on him was obvious -- his hands were those of an old man. Now in school, Rajeev is one of 1,500 area children who have been "rescued." He hopes someday to become a teacher.

Developing countries do not have a monopoly on child maltreatment, as our own $124 billion problem can confirm. But its pervasiveness among the world's poorest nations is profound. Child abuse is one of the most despicable and tragic consequences of poverty. How much will it cost to fix it? Does the answer to that question really matter?