The worst thing in the world

Commentary from William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs:

When families feel the pressure of a slowing economy on their shoulders, children suffer. Historically, when the economy shifts downward, there has been a corresponding increase in child abuse and neglect.

Childhelp, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse, reports an eight to 10 percent increase in calls to child abuse hotlines since July.

Researchers have indicated that there appears to be a link between the health of our economy, the economic health of families and the health and well-being of our children. Rightly so, most observers fall short of declaring there is a direct cause and effect link – the causes of child abuse and neglect are varied and not well understood – but there is a connection nonetheless.

The 13 million children living in poverty are particularly at risk. The connection between poverty and child welfare is well documented. Maltreatment, especially, is more prevalent among families categorized as poor and extremely poor than in families with higher incomes. It’s not that low-income parents love their children any less than other parents, or that they don’t have the same aspirations for success, upward mobility, good health and well-being as other parents. They do.

All parents, regardless of income, want to give their children a quality education, nutritious meals, health insurance and affordable health care, substantive family time, adequate housing, a safe neighborhood, exposure to a breadth of opportunities and ideas, and an environment that encourages rather than stifles dreams. It is this strong desire of low-income parents to provide their children with the basic necessities cruelly juxtaposed against their inability to do so that increases family stress, which can result in an increased possibility of abuse or neglect.

In 2006, nearly 900,000 children in America were confirmed as victims of child abuse or neglect. Research has shown that children raised in poverty are 46 times more likely to be placed in foster care. The 1996 National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect found that child neglect is 22 times more likely if family income is less than $15,000 as compared to families with an income of more than $30,000.

The authors of an article published in 2006 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry discovered that more than half the children in foster care and a third of the children who received in-home services were identified by their case workers as having birth families who had difficulty meeting their basic needs at the time of investigation. The majority lived below 150 percent of the poverty level; and of the families who did not live below the poverty level, many suffered financial hardship.

As we shore up the health and stability of the middle class and big business in the wake of our current economic crisis, let us also be mindful that we must take steps to strengthen the poorest among us.

Part of Casey Family Programs’ 2020 Strategy for America’s Children is to safely reduce the number of children in foster care by 50 percent and reinvest the money saved in preventive programs that strengthen families and increase their chances to stay intact.

We realize that to reduce foster care, we must help redirect the course of life for the 7.7 million families living in poverty because every child in America deserves the right to be raised in a family that has enough resources to meet that child’s basic needs. Such a shift will require that we not only change our practices, but also our perspective – how we view poor and low-income citizens, families and children, how they view themselves and how families are teaching their children to view themselves. We need to change how we see low-income families and what we think about them.

Only after we’ve changed our perspective about all of our families can we bring about real change and change our practices. It is this change in both perspective and practice that will dictate what we put in place to support and augment their efforts and allow them to live their daily lives with a renewed sense of dignity, strength and hope.

America must do a better job of providing families with tools, resources and healthy alternatives to cope, to fill in the gaps and to provide increased opportunity for all children. If we don’t do something to constructively address poverty in this country, if we don’t help families break out of poverty, we will continue to see children channeled into the foster care system.

Ultimately in the greatest country in the world, when it comes to our children there is only one standard – the standard of your own. If growing up in poverty is not acceptable for your own children, then it cannot be acceptable for any child in America.

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