A father grabs his two-month-old daughter because she’s crying, slams her head against a doorjamb and then throws her across a room onto a bed. She dies the next day. A 15-month old boy is rushed to the hospital where he dies an hour later, his bottom and genitals covered with a horrible diaper rash that was left untreated and turned septic. A crying two-week old baby is grabbed up by his mother’s boyfriend and shaken until he stops crying. He dies later that day from brain hemorrhaging caused by the blood vessels in his skull tearing as his headed whipped back and forth when he was shaken.
Three children, all of whom died at the hands of those who should have been most concerned with their care and well being. Unfortunately, they are not alone. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) each year in the United States, some 1,400 children die as a result of neglect and abuse.
Abuse and neglect affect some 850,000 to 900,000 children each year. Sadly, it is those children least able to defend themselves that are victims. According to NCANDS, children under age one account for 41 percent of cases, and children under age four account for 76 percent of cases. While the media plays up the deaths of children at the hands of babysitters or other caretakers, 79 percent of the time children are abused by one or both of their parents. While abuse cuts across age groups and socio-economic strata, more often than not, someone who commits child abuse is a young adult in his or her mid-20’s with no high school diploma, living at or below the poverty level, that has difficulty coping with stress.
Most people see abusers as uncaring, unloving monsters. The fact of the matter is that generally these parents do love and care about their children. However, they don’t have the coping skills to handle their own lives, let alone the stresses and responsibilities that come with having children. In many cases drugs, alcohol, and mental illness, either individually or in combination, is involved.
Child abuse is expensive both in dollars and human capital. Not only does abuse and neglect exact a horrible toll of physical and mental pain on the children who are abused, but it also incurs huge costs for society in general. Beyond the more obvious costs such as foster care and funding for child protective services, studies have shown that children who are abused and neglected are more likely to have difficulties in school and as adults are more likely to end up in prison and have significant health problems, all of which consume public resources. And, children who are neglected and abused are at risk of growing up and continuing the cycle by abusing and neglecting their own children.
Child protective services, foster care, and child abuse reporting laws are ways of attempting to mitigate the damage of child abuse after it has occurred. However, in order to lessen the costs resulting from abuse, communities need to look at ways not only to mitigate the abuse but also to prevent it before it happens. Things communities can do to try to prevent child abuse include:
- Churches can provide parenting classes and drug and alcohol prevention programs for their teen groups, support new mothers by pairing them with one or more older, more experienced mothers who can offer respite and advice, and providing social activities with babysitting where mothers can interact and get a short break from the kids.
- Community-level family resource centers can be established that provide access to social services, counseling, parenting classes, drug and alcohol prevention programs, and support groups.
- Parenting classes can be offered to middle school and high school students either through the schools or through boys and girls clubs, churches, family resource centers, and community centers. Parenting classes differ from sex education in that instead of providing information on the biology of babies, parenting classes provide information to young people on what it takes to be a parent like household finances, early childhood development, and the care and feeding of infants and toddlers.
- Communities can ensure that young people understand their options when it comes to having children, including:
o Ensuring that health clinics are providing a variety of options for low or no cost birth control;
o Information on abortions is readily available; and
o Information on the types and benefits of adoption and whom to contact to put a child up for adoption. Young mothers and fathers need to know that if they are unable to properly care for their child, there are ways to legally put a child up for adoption even if the child is not a newborn.
- Communities can offer low or no cost drug and alcohol treatment programs and mental health services to young parents who need them.
The misery of child abuse and neglect can only be imagined by someone who has not experienced it. Everyone, however, shares the costs of child abuse and neglect. If we wish to end child abuse and eliminate the costs it incurs, communities need to work toward preventing child abuse in the first place and not merely react to it once it has occurred.