Act Quickly to Stop Abuse

Reports of child abuse have increased dramatically in San Diego County in the past few years. In fiscal 1986, 52,000 cases were reported, double the number reported four years earlier.

That rate of increase is greater than the population growth in the county. It is also higher than national figures and is among the highest in the state.

Except for population growth, the reasons are unclear. How much is an increase in awareness and how much is an increase in actual abuse is impossible to determine. One explanation experts offer, however, is a familiar one: San Diego County is becoming more urban.

Along with the physical problems of growth--such as traffic, pollution and sewage--that we have had to face this year, come many social problems. Child abuse is among them. People migrating to San Diego often arrive without the family support systems that help relieve the parenting pressures.

Whatever the reasons, the task facing the physicians, nurses, judges, social workers and attorneys who have to deal with abused children and their families is immense.

Social workers are handling twice the number of cases the state says is manageable, and the caseload makes it nearly impossible to maintain the close working relationship with the families that is central to preventing further abuse. Judges frequently review the progress of 40 cases in a single afternoon; seven deputy district attorneys are so overburdened by the 3,100 cases that entered the courts last year that they have little time to prepare the cases. Turnover is high, training often is on-the-job, and the decisions can be life-or-death ones.

But as high a price as these adults pay in stress or worry over whether they have made the right decisions, it is the children who bear the real cost of an overtaxed social services and judicial system.

Frightened children who have been injured, molested or neglected by their families deserve adults who have the time to give them the care they need. To shortchange them is inexcusable.

Some help is on the way for social workers: 32 new employees will be added in January. There was also an encouraging note recently from Children's Hospital, which received a federal grant of $150,000 a year for the next three years to provide training on child abuse for students at California Western School of Law, UC San Diego School of Medicine and San Diego State University. The program, if it is ongoing, should better train the professionals who care for abused children and perhaps increase the number specializing in this field.

But no solution is in sight for the Juvenile Court problem. The lack of attorneys, judges and courtrooms to handle the most serious cases, those in which the court is asked to assume responsibility for a child's welfare, is dangerous and needs a prompt remedy.

The county counsel, whose office is perhaps more appropriate to handle child abuse cases, says that it would take 13 more attorneys to handle the caseload. But the district attorney was unable to get even the two lawyers it requested last year.

This problem calls for some immediate action and should be high on the agenda when next year's budget starts being prepared this spring.

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