Any local paper will have it, most likely buried beyond page six, but it will most certainly be there. What I am talking about is some horrific account of ritual child abuse, long ignored, but uncovered by local police, neighbors, or child protective services – but always a bit too late. Sometimes reading these accounts can literally churn your stomach, whether you are a parent or not. The idea of a violently oppressed child trapped in a cycle of abuse and neglect makes you question the humanity, or lack thereof, of your fellow citizen. The fact is, as child abuse exists around the globe, it is the first world, highly industrialized, United States that boasts some of the highest rates of child abuse in the world. Here is a statistic for you courtesy of the BBC: Over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the child maltreatment death rate in the US is triple Canada’s and 11 times that of Italy. To say there is a problem here is a tragic understatement.
Many loving and engaged parents (like myself) will likely react to these figures in horror and (if they haven’t already) pledge to honor their children and their own roll as parents and protectors. But the fact is, our country (the U.S.) is rife with this sort of abuse and, while the individual abuser is ultimately to blame, economic and societal factors have a big impact on those numbers, so says Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters. The fact that violent crime, teen pregnancy, imprisonment and poverty are all unreasonably high in the United States (compared to other industrialized countries) are generally far higher in the U.S. undoubtedly impacts the number of child abuse cases domestically, but the fact that the U.S. also has little in the way of social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave and visiting nurses to virtually all in need, creates an ideal environment for child abuse to become the norm. If child abuse were an opportunistic mold, the United States would be a wet basement filled with damp towels and incubator-like warmth.
Petit, in a piece written for the BBC, says this is America’s shame and makes the case that geography matters a great deal in determining the well being of a child. He uses the examples of Texas and Vermont: Texas prides itself in being a low tax, low service state, whereas Vermont is a high-tax, high service state. Petit sees Texas state policies as greatly contributing to the risk factors that children face. Children from Texas, he writes, are twice as likely to drop out of high school as children from Vermont. They are four times more likely to be uninsured, four times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly twice as likely to die from abuse and neglect. While Texans can boast the most “freedom” of any state, they carry the burden of a deeply underserved, neglected, and often abused, child population. So while child abuse is ultimately a product of the parents/guardians, the existing state policies seem to have a hell of a lot to do with the frequency and how widespread the abuse actually is.
So as the economy staggers towards a possible double-dip recession, we could be fairly confident that incidents of child abuse, endangerment, and neglect will proportionately rise with the continuing downturn. Many legislators choose to blame parents for the abuse (as no abusive parent should remain blameless), but aren’t they neglecting to see that the state, as well as the federal government, is complicit in fostering an environment perfect for such abuse. To quote Petit again, “Children did not crash the US economy. It is both shortsighted economic policy and morally wrong to make them pay the price for fixing it.”
What is your read on the political, social, and economic influence on the widespread nature of child abuse in the U.S.? Is this oversimplifying the problem? Are parents the only ones to blame for their bad behavior, or can the problem be addressed from the top down?