Column: Society responsible for preventing child abuse

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 Messenger photo by Pat Donahue

In the “Pinwheels for Prevention” display on the Madison County Court House Lawn, each pinwheel represents one report of child abuse or neglect in Madison County. Based on the most recent statistics available, there are 377 pinwheels on display for reports made in 2006. Each April, Madison County Children’s Services sponsors the display in conjunction with National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year, London Brownie Troop 1209 installed the pinwheels on the lawn.

Part and parcel with parenting is the incessant worrying we do over the safety of our children.  

As new dangers to children seem to arise daily, we continuously fret over the foods they eat, the medicines we provide them, and the toys with which they play. Every day in America, roughly 2,463 children become victims of abuse or neglect—approximately 900,000 children each year. To be a truly moral and civil society, it is not enough to protect the children within our care; rather, we must remain vigilant in protecting every child living in fear and desperation in our very own communities.  

There are four general forms of abuse:  physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional or psychological abuse, and they more typically occur in combination than alone. Each of them can have lifelong, devastating consequences on the victim. The victims often develop mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, learning disabilities, and anti-social behavior later in life. Roughly one-third of child abuse fatalities result from neglect alone, typically from extended malnourishment or accidents occurring while the child was unsupervised. In 2004, nearly 80 percent of the perpetrators of abuse were the parents, while 10 percent were non-parent caretakers.

In the dark world of child abuse, there exists a tragic perversion of the golden rule; victims of child abuse later do unto others as they had done unto them. As a judge and prosecutor, I saw the horrifying reality of this truism on a daily basis in my courtroom. Almost without fail, the abusers of children who appeared before me were themselves victims of abuse. This cycle is strong but it is not inevitable.  

In 2000, legislation I authored, the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement (CAPE) Act, was signed into law. CAPE increased funding for the investigation of child abuse crimes and the creation of child abuse prevention programs. In addition, CAPE focuses on improving the criminal justice system’s ability to provide timely, accurate criminal-record information to agencies engaged in child protection. Coupled with the more comprehensive and preeminent federal child abuse law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1973, these two statutes define the federal role in preventing, investigating and prosecuting instances of child abuse.

Adoption and foster care are also critical weapons in the fight against child abuse. We must continue to make the process of adoption more affordable and less bureaucratic, so that child victims of abuse placed in foster care can move quickly into stable and loving homes with permanent families.   

For far too many children, foster care has become a way of life—not a temporary safe haven as it was intended. While the federal government has an important role to play in combating child abuse, it is a limited role. States and communities shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility in fighting abuse, and the federal government must support innovative and effective state and local programs that are helping to end the cycle of violence.

Despite the tools available to prevent child abuse, instances of abuse are on the rise. Since 2001, the number of abuse investigations has risen from 43.2 per 1000 children to 48.3 in 2005. Tragically, in 2005 an estimated 1,460 children died from abuse or neglect—75 percent of them under the age of 4. Equally alarming is the belief that fatalities due to abuse are vastly underreported. One study from 2002 suggests that as many as 50 percent to 60 percent of child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect are not recorded as such.  

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, when we seek to educate the nation of the violence that is horrifyingly prevalent in the shadows of the communities in which we live. Recognition of this month is immensely important, as every citizen, teacher, social worker, law enforcement official, and child care provider must be capable of identifying possible abuse or neglect, so that these children can be extricated from the abusive environment.  

For years, child abuse was generally classified as a family problem. Fortunately, we have evolved enough to know that abuse is society’s problem, and that we all have a responsibility to prevent it. While preventing abuse should begin at home by being a more patient and nurturing parent, each of us can learn to recognize the signs of abuse, report apparent abuse to the proper authorities, and spare a child a lifetime of incalculable pain and heartbreak.

Congresswoman Deborah Pryce’s constituency includes Madison County.

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