Nation Must Do More to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect

May 07, 2010

By Rutledge Q. Hutson

May is National Foster Care Month, which offers a time to reflect on how we as a nation respond to child abuse and neglect.

Recent landmark legislation, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, took significant steps toward moving children out of foster care into permanent homes and to improving the care children receive while in foster care. Now, we must build upon that success and ensure that the legislation is well implemented so children and their families actually benefit. We must also do more to prevent abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place. The historic health care legislation enacted in March included a critical investment $1.5 billion over five years for a home visiting program that provides parent education and support, health screenings for children and linkages to other critical services for vulnerable families. This is an important step toward investing in prevention, but we must take the next step and enact comprehensive financing reform of the child welfare system. The long-term well-being of children depends on it.

On any given day, about half a million children are in foster care. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Every year for the past decade, child welfare agencies have substantiated between 750,000 and one million children as maltreated.  Even that number is but a fraction of the true incidence of abuse and neglect.  Research suggests that as many as 3 million children may be maltreated each year. (View CLASP fact sheets on child welfare to see how children in your state fare.)

Beyond the immediate physical and psychological trauma of maltreatment, abused and neglected children suffer a host of physical, psychological and social problems long into adulthood.  They are at greater risk of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, suicide attempts, unintended pregnancy, intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted diseases, fetal deaths, smoking, ischemic heart disease, liver disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Children who have been in foster care, including those who "age out" of foster care upon turning 18, typically attain fewer years of education and have less steady employment. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty and to be involved with the criminal justice system.  These outcomes are problematic not just for the individuals who experience them, but for the nation.  The United States spends more than $100 billion annually on the direct and indirect costs of child maltreatment. We must do better.

Research provides guidance about what works to prevent child abuse and neglect, to stabilize families in crisis, and to keep children safely in their homes so they are not torn from everyone and everything that they know. Research shows that to thrive, children must grow up in nurturing families and caring communities.  While there is no substitute for a loving engaged parent, the government has a critical role to play in keeping children safe.  Parents must foremost be equipped with the skills, tools and resources to help their children fulfill their potential. When parents are unable to care for their children, even with supports and services, we must move them into foster care and ensure that they receive top-notch care.  We must also ensure that the foster care experience is a temporary one and that children return home or move to other permanent families as quickly as possible.  Finally, we must offer support to children and their families after they leave foster care to ensure the stability of those families.  Only when we provide this full continuum of services from prevention to post-permanency will we improve the outcomes children and their families' experience.

Working to ensure Fostering Connections is implemented effectively will help provide part of that continuum, but we can't stop there. Congress should pass comprehensive financing reform. This reform should: strengthen efforts to prevent children from being abused and neglected and avoid placement in foster care when safely possible; support and enhance the workforce that prevents and responds to child maltreatment; improve the treatment of children in foster care; and support children and families after foster care so that those families remain stable and children do not re-enter foster care.

When Congress passed Fostering Connections, its champions acknowledged the step forward the law made but also acknowledged it was only a first step.  Now, during these difficult economic times, it is particularly critical to take next steps and prevent more children from experiencing abuse and neglect and entering foster care because their parents cannot adequately provide for them.  During National Foster Care month, let us reflect on what we have accomplished and redouble our efforts to tackle comprehensive financing reform.


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