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Panel Calls Child Abuse a National Emergency : Health: Congressional advisers call for more funding and an overhaul of the protection system. The rise in reported cases is termed “astronomical.”

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Child abuse and neglect in the United States constitute a national emergency “so compelling that it dictates an immediate response,” a federal advisory panel declared in a report released Tuesday to Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, using unusually strong language, condemned the current system in the United States as failing to protect the nation’s children.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of children are being starved and abandoned, burned and severely beaten, raped and sodomized, berated and belittled,” stated the panel, composed of experts on children’s concerns.

“All Americans should be outraged by child maltreatment,” it continued. “Not only are child abuse and neglect wrong, but the nation’s lack of an effective response to them is also wrong. Neither can be tolerated. Together, they constitute a moral disaster.”

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The panel was established by Congress in 1988 to evaluate the scope of child abuse in the United States and to develop recommendations to correct it. The panel’s report, the first in a series of required annual overviews, is scheduled to be released officially today.

“All Americans share an ethical duty to ensure the safety of children,” the report said. “Protection of children from harm is not just an ethical duty--it is a matter of national survival.”

The United States “spends billions of dollars on programs that deal with the results of the nation’s failure to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect,” the report said.

The number of reported cases of child abuse has soared to 2.4 million annually from about 60,000 in 1974, according to the report, which called the increase “astronomical.”

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The board said that the child protection system “has not expanded to meet the challenges posed by the huge increase in cases,” which has affected the whole spectrum of agencies dealing with child abuse, including law enforcement, the courts and mental health services.

Child protection agencies have suffered “the greatest impact” and “have not been given the resources necessary to cope,” the report said.

“This is serious business,” said Deanne E. Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the Los Angeles County Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and a member of the panel.

“There is no segment of society who can’t do something about it or who won’t be affected by it if something isn’t done,” she said in an interview. “We can’t afford not to deal with the problem.”

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Although child abuse occurs among all socioeconomic and cultural groups, the reported noted that poverty makes child maltreatment much more likely.

“Child maltreatment is especially likely to occur when families under stress lack support from their neighbors,” the report said. “Child maltreatment occurs much more frequently among socially isolated families.”

It is exacerbated also by parents’ mental health problems and substance abuse, the report said. Child abuse associated with substance abuse has experienced “an extraordinary increase,” it stated, adding: “The severity of the problem has caught all parts of the child protection system unprepared.”

The board said that its members decided to devote their first report “to alerting the nation to the existence of the emergency” and to recommending a series of “first steps” to provide a framework for changing the system during the next decade.

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Ultimately, the nation should replace the existing system with “a new national child-centered, neighborhood-based child protection strategy,” the board said, adding that designing such a plan “will preoccupy the board during the next several years.”

Joy Byers, coordinator of public awareness activities for the Chicago-based National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, said it is “very encouraging to hear that a government-sponsored report is calling for a public outcry as a first step. The next step for the public is to find out how to get involved and become part of the solution.”

In the first of 31 recommendations designed to encourage the public to become actively involved in preventing child abuse, the panel urged all citizens “to recognize that a serious emergency . . . exists within American society” and to join with other citizens “in resolving that its continued existence is intolerable.”

“The board urges each American to understand that he or she is personally responsible for preventing harm to all the maltreated children of the nation,” the report said.

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Further, the board said, citizens should demand that their elected public officials publicly acknowledge that an emergency exists and “take whatever steps are necessary,” including finding new sources of funding “to rehabilitate the nation’s child protection system.”

In addition, the panel called on public officials to view the prevention of child abuse and neglect “as a matter of national security.”

These officials should increase support for housing, child care, education and prenatal care for low-income families, “the absence of which has been linked to child abuse and neglect,” the report said.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, praised the report.

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“The consequences of child abuse are devastating, not only for the long-term stability of the individual child, but the explosion in child abuse cases has been a key factor in overwhelming the child welfare system,” he said. “The report is a substantive call to action on behalf of our children.”


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