by Gale Horinbein
Transplant Social Worker
April's observance of Child Abuse Prevention Month is an annual opportunity to highlight the role we play to prevent the abuse and neglect that is endangering children.
Child maltreatment is a significant and preventable public health problem in our country. Yet in 2010, the most recent year that national child maltreatment statistics are available, at least four children died every day and about 3.3 million reports were made to child protective services concerning the safety of about 5.9 million children. That's nearly six reports every minute. An estimated 695,000 children were reported to be found victims of child abuse or neglect. Of these victims, 78.3 percent were neglected, more than 15 percent were physically abused, less than 10 percent were sexually abused and less than 10 percent were psychologically maltreated.
The number of reported fatalities due to child abuse and neglect has fluctuated during the past five years. Sadly, the highest rate of child maltreatment occurs to children under the age of 4. In addition, children younger than age 4 account for 80 percent of deaths and 47.7 percent of child fatalities were younger than one year. More than 30 percent of child fatalities were attributed exclusively to neglect and abusive head trauma or Shaken Baby Syndrome, which is the leading cause of death of physically abused children.
No group of children is immune. Victimization was split between the sexes with boys accounting for 48.5 percent and girls accounting for 51.2 percent. Eighty-eight percent of victims were comprised of three races or ethnicities: African-American (21.9 percent), Hispanic (21.4 percent) and White (44.8 percent).
At least four out of five victims are abused by at least one parent and no matter how fatal abuse occurs, one fact of concern is that the perpetrators are, by definition, the very individuals responsible for the care and supervision of their victims.
Experts believe many more cases go unreported and will never be brought to the attention of the state's child protective agencies or law enforcement. This is unfortunate since reporting abuse can help connect families with counseling and other services to relieve stress, which in turn can save a life.
For survivors, the impact of child maltreatment can be profound. Research shows that a history of child abuse and neglect has been associated with increased risk of mental illness, substance abuse, developmental disabilities or learning problems, social problems, teen pregnancy, lack of success in school, alcohol or other drug use, domestic violence and chronic illnesses. In addition to the impact on the child and family, child maltreatment exacts a financial burden to society.
According to a study funded by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the total lifetime costs – health care, child welfare, criminal justice and the value of lost future productivity and earnings – are $124 billion each year. These costs dwarf those spent on prevention by 400 to 1. Understanding this imbalance between what is invested on the front end to prevent abuse and neglect before it happens and what is spent as a consequence after it occurs is critical for our policymakers.
Although all the causes of child abuse and neglect are not known, research has identified many factors relating to the child, family, community and society that are associated with an increased risk of child abuse and neglect. Studies also have shown that when multiple risk factors are present, the risk is greater.
For example, young mothers and fathers unprepared for the responsibilities of raising a child, overwhelmed single parents with little support and families placed under stress by poverty, divorce or a child's disability can all lead to abusive or neglectful behavior. Some families are stressed by worries about foreclosure, employment, health, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence or other problems. Parents also may lack knowledge of the health, hygiene and nutritional needs of their children. These circumstances, combined with the inherent challenges of raising children, can result in otherwise well-intentioned parents causing their children harm or neglecting their needs.
One of the keys to prevent child abuse and neglect from happening is to provide parents with the necessary tools they need. Helping parents who might be struggling reduces the likelihood that their children will be abused or neglected. Prevention efforts build on family strengths. Through prevention activities, such as parent education, home visitation and support groups, families are able to find the support they need to stay together and care for their children in their homes and communities.
The cycle of child abuse can be prevented through early intervention, support and preventive services being provided to families. Until the value of prevention and investment of adequate resources to support prevention activities is recognized, child abuse and neglect will never be eradicated.
If you suspect a child is being harmed within his or her home and resides in Charleston County, call the Department of Social Services 24-hour hotline at 953-9422. Your suspicion of child abuse or neglect is enough to make a report. You are not required to provide proof and South Carolina law protects people who make good faith reports of child abuse.