Band-Aids for Child Abuse : Help Slips for Typical Cases as Exceptions Get the Attention

Nancy Amidei is a Washington-based writer on social policy and a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

The Child Welfare League of America has just issued the results of a survey on child abuse, "Too Young to Run," and this time, the numbers may not be the issue. True, reports of child abuse are up--16% for all kinds of abuse, 59% for sexual abuse--but if anything, this just may be evidence that something is working as planned.

Beginning in 1962, after a Colorado pediatrician, Henry Kempe, described "the battered child syndrome," more and more professionals who work with children have been required to report any suspected child abuse. Public education campaigns have encouraged everyone, including members of families where abuse is going on, to come forward. And several recent, highly sensational front-page cases also have played a part. Taken together they do much to explain the dramatic increases in the numbers.

Far more troubling is the degree to which the available evidence and the political response are so at variance. Reporters tend to focus on the most dramatic cases, but that doesn't make them a sound basis for public policy. We're paying for rational decision-making, but we may be getting government-by-headline instead.

Presumably, abused children are at the heart of this issue. Yet one year's worth of state legislative proposals summarized in the Child Welfare League report is revealing: Of nearly 300 bills related to child abuse, the largest number, 67, dealt with courtroom procedures, and another 60 with requirements for reporting abuse; 48 focused on the offender (penalties, sentencing) and only 9 on help for the child victims. Granted, it's easier to call for locking up a molester than figuring out how to help the child, but that's far from sufficient, particularly when the molester is the child's parent or older brother and will be back home soon enough.

Next, the legislators responded to the fear of sexual abuse in schools and other institutional settings, the subject of 36 bills, and on fingerprinting or record checks for people who work with children, another 18 proposals. Yet every state in the survey was clear that sexual abuse is relatively infrequent--nationally, one case in seven--and very few reports of child abuse come from institutional settings, in most states less than 5%. In Los Angeles County, 99.83% of last year's cases involved familial, not institutional, abuse.

Why, then, if child abuse almost always occurs within families, are some states now requiring child-care institutions to run costly criminal checks on all prospective employees? It's almost as though the amount of space that editors lavished on cases involving day-care centers is dictating the "solution"--one that ignores roughly 98% of the problem.

And why are so many new policies designed to increase the number of people reporting on child abuse, but not the number of people available to investigate those reports or, more important, to help the children?

The Child Welfare League found many public agencies that already get more reports of abuse than they can investigate, forcing hard choices. Now some investigate only if the child is "too young to run," reasoning that older children might at least get away. Others investigate if a call is about sexual abuse (because that's where the political pressure is), but not if there's "only" physical abuse, or "simple" neglect--though neglect is more likely to result in a child's death. One agency head in Texas said that its staff responds "when there's blood."

Yet the flurry of legislative activity on child abuse generally has not translated into more funding for services.

Even private family-service agencies have backlogs. Families referred to them because of "intrafamilial sexual abuse" may be put on a waiting list and sent home for six months or more before they get help.

The agencies surveyed understand that money is scarce. If offered additional funds, they said, not surprisingly, they would hire more staff. But they also wish to see more funding for housing, day care and shelter for troubled families, plus lower-cost preventive services such as parent aides, homemaker assistance and community outreach. More costly therapy programs were at the bottom of their wish list.

Child abuse is one issue on which everyone agrees that society has a responsibility. That involves costs--whether in the form of adequate staff and basic services, or less directly in the form of court procedures and jails. But no one is well-served, least of all abused children, by using up scarce resources on the exceptions, or by encouraging more people to report to a system that cannot respond.

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