Protecting abused children

By Dr. Kathleen Reardon and Amy Harfeld

December 26, 2008 / The Boston Globe

ABUSED AND NEGLECTED children don't vote, don't contribute to political campaigns, and don't employ lobbyists. They have no voice and no clout. Often they have no hope.

It is nearly impossible for these children to be heard in Washington. Their fears and needs are overshadowed by wars and economic crises. But if Americans fully understood the devastating circumstances abused and neglected children face each day - and the personal and social consequences when these children become adults - they would insist on immediate change.

President-elect Barack Obama and Congress should convene a national discussion early in the new year about legal and social service policies that better protect children.

In 2006, nearly 1 million children were victims of abuse or neglect, according to government statistics. More than 1,500 children died - 78 percent were under age 3 and 44 percent were younger than age 1. In addition to the loss of innocent lives, child abuse carries societal and economic costs - estimated at more than $103 billion annually. The child protection system in the United States is a case study in broken bureaucracy. There are 2,200 individual jurisdictions in the United States with inconsistent rules and procedures. The fractured nature of the system creates barriers that prevent children from getting access to effective judicial remedies and safe home environments.

A 2008 study by the child advocacy organization First Star found that state confidentiality policies regarding child fatalities and near-fatalities often protect agencies and perpetrators better than children. Another First Star study found that most states do not provide abused and neglected children with adequate legal representation, leaving their voices muffled while decisions are made about their futures. Massachusetts scored well in the first study, but was given a failing grade on transparency.

Obama can apply a strong federal hand in shaping policies to ensure that a child protected well in one state not be endangered simply by moving to a neighboring state where protection is woefully inadequate.

As a first step, he could press for the reauthorization and full funding of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. There should also be certification programs for all those involved in protecting at-risk children, including judges and attorneys. The National Association of Counsel for Children offers an excellent model. Obama could also launch a Caseworker Education and Training Corps to recruit, train, and financially support college students in return for a pledge to work in the field helping to protect America's children.

Stronger laws are needed to ensure that abused and neglected children have skilled and effective advocates. In addition, information related to how abuse and neglect cases are handled by state agencies needs to be more accessible to the public and the media to promote and enforce agency accountability. Although the identity of child victims would still be protected, repetitive bureaucratic error would not be.

There are some promising signs. Congress recently passed a law designed to keep siblings in foster care together and provide additional services to young adults who age out of the foster care system, 53 percent of whom are unemployed after a year of living on their own. Several states have also begun to overhaul their systems.

But we need to go much further. Each day the toll in lives lost and futures squandered is a tragedy we all share. Obama offered hope for America's future and the country believed him. America's children living in fear pray that he extends this hope to them.

Dr. Kathleen Reardon is co-author of "Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect." Amy Harfeld is executive director of First Star.


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