In the middle of all the headlines and 24-hour news reports about the economic crisis, one critical story is just beginning to be told. Four days after Christmas, the Washington Postran this article: “Child Neglect Cases Multiply As Economic Woes Spread.” In the article, area child welfare workers talked about the noticeable rise in the number of child abuse and neglect investigations. Many of the new neglect cases were connected to families trying to make do without heat, electricity or necessary medical care, like asthma medications and other basic needs. An emergency room doctor at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, worried about a recent jump in the number of children coming in with bruises, broken bones and burns, and colleagues in other cities told her they’d noticed the same thing.
Operators at child abuse prevention hotlines were also hearing from growing numbers of parents whose financial problems were pushing them over the edge and making them lose control around their children. The child welfare experts interviewed in the article agreed that economic stress puts already fragile families, like those facing domestic violence or substance abuse, at even greater risk. Families who may have seemed fine only a few months ago are also in danger. Linda Spears, vice president of the Child Welfare League of America, told the Post she is seeing cases of “middle-class families living in their cars, so afraid of losing their children that they tell the children not to tell anyone they’re homeless…. In late winter or early spring, I suspect we’ll just begin to see the impact on kids.”
The same stories are quietly popping up in many communities across the country. Children are already directly affected by the nation’s economy. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of poor children grew by 500,000 to the current total of 13.3 million. That number is expected to increase even more as the full impact of the recession is felt. And even before America reached a full-blown economic crisis, we already were experiencing a child abuse and neglect crisis. In 2006, more than 900,000 children were abused or neglected, and 40 percent of those children got no help after their initial investigation. Now the threat is even greater as child abuse and neglect together become one more indicator of how Americans are responding to the current pressure, stress and insecurity.
Action is needed at all levels. In Congress, steps hopefully will be taken soon to alleviate stress on families by extending unemployment insurance benefits, getting food stamps to more families for immediate relief, and shoring up states’ capacity to offer them the health coverage and range of social services and supports they need—all improvements included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act being voted on in Congress. The Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit improvements and the new Make Work Pay Credit in the recovery package will help get money into the hands of families that they can spend quickly for basic needs for their children and themselves. Families also will benefit from anticipated expansions of housing and job training opportunities. Special help is needed at the federal level and in states and communities to strengthen supports for already vulnerable families challenged by substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence, and to increase significantly staff and services to help prevent and treat child abuse and neglect. Faith communities and other community-based organizations must provide special outreach and help with children during these challenging times, and we must not forget the important supportive roles we can play, neighbor to neighbor and in our own families, to ease pressures on stressed-out families.
We know what works to help keep children safe. But this help needs to come soon. Children in danger and at risk right now can’t wait.