More needs to be done to reduce child abuse

Dairyland Peach
July 5, 2015

Minnesota has experienced a horrific parade of violence against children in recent years. Just last week, we learned of the death of Sophia O’Neill, age 2, of Minneapolis, stomped to death allegedly by her mother’s boyfriend, age 17.
The disappearance of Barway Collins, of Crystal in March captivated the state until his body was found and his father was charged with his murder.
The murder of Pope County’s Eric Dean, age 4, after 15 reports to the county of possible abuse went unaddressed, caused the Legislature to act.
And coming out in a trickle have been years of pedophile attacks by Roman Catholic priests, of which 179 in Minnesota alone have been accused.
It is easy to become angry at the accused and the convicted, to send them to prison and pretend that we have accomplished something. However, we have a major public health issue confronting us, and are nowhere close to solving it. The reported crimes are just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2013, local governments in Minnesota received 68,000 reports of alleged child abuse. Of those, about 48,000 were screened out with no more than a phone call.
In the wake of Eric Dean’s death, Gov. Mark Dayton formed a task force to review the state’s child protection efforts. It returned with 93 recommendations.
The Legislature responded by enacting several changes:
• Law enforcement must now review every report of alleged child abuse, even if the report was received initially by social services.
• A provision that kept child protection teams from looking at previously screened out reports was repealed.
• The priority for action was changed from keeping a family together to putting the safety of the child foremost.
• An additional $52 million was appropriated, most of which will go directly to hire more child protection workers. Currently, the caseload for such workers is about 20, and the goal is to reduce it to 15 cases per worker.
The governor’s task force concluded that a continuum of responses is needed, allowing child protection workers to keep the child safe, but also to help families become properly engaged. A growing body of evidence shows that child abuse is much more widespread than news stories suggest. A landmark study of 17,000 adults completed in 1997 by Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization, found that 28 percent of the respondents had suffered from physical abuse when growing up, 21 percent from sexual abuse, 15 percent from emotional neglect, 11 percent from emotional abuse and 10 percent from physical neglect.
The study also found that 27 percent of the adults had lived in a household where substance abuse occurred, 23 percent whose parents were separated or divorced, 19 percent in which a member of the household was mentally ill, 13 percent in which they saw their mother being treated violently and 5 percent lived in households in which at least one member was incarcerated. Subsequent studies continue to verify the relative accuracy of these statistics.
Social scientists call these conditions “adverse childhood experiences,” and they are causing our society billions of dollars in lost productivity from citizens who have a reduced learning capacity as a result of the abuse, and who are more likely to use drugs, alcohol to excess and tobacco, resulting in higher health care costs. Such victims have a greater likelihood of contracting heart, lung and liver diseases, obesity, cancer and high blood pressure.
The more adverse experiences an individual suffers, the more difficulty he or she has flourishing in life. For example, a child who experiences four or more of these adverse experiences is five times more likely to become an adult alcoholic than someone who experiences none of them.
The studies have found that these adverse experiences cause stress reactions in the brains of children, resulting in chemical changes in the frontal cortex that cause them increased anxiety for the remainder of their lives.
Child abuse victims are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, and 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime at some point in their lives.
We know all these things, but huge questions remain: How do we break the cycle? How do we help children living in chaos develop the resilience they will need as adults? Since most abuse occurs within the home, out of public view, how do we address it before permanent damage is done?
To its credit, the Legislature almost doubled state spending on the School Readiness program and Early Learning scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds this year, adding almost $90 million to preschool programs. But more needs to happen. Earlier detection is key. Minneapolis-based Generation Next says only 36 percent of Minneapolis 3-year-olds and 29 percent of St. Paul 3-year-olds are screened for developmental issues. Much adversity can happen to a child before then.
It is said that none of us do anything more challenging than raising a child. Perhaps we need to begin by reminding each other that it is not a right, but a privilege to raise children, and that we can still love our parents while adopting better parenting practices ourselves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers as a first step the vision of “assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for every child and preventing child maltreatment.”
Let’s give every child a chance in life. It’s not happening now.


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