Is This how the U.S. Loves its Children?

            As we point out in our book, Enough of Us, Americans extoll the making of children as a great creative act.  Commercials show mothers hugging the cutest kids with the rosiest complexions. Pregnancy is presented in articles and movies as a path to true happiness. As in much that is American, the light and cheery external look of things belies what happens inside countless family homes for so many children: the darkness of child abuse goes on in shocking numbers.

Leg fracture resulting from child abuse

Fractured tibia in infant. Photo: National Institutes of Health.

            Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Ph.D., wrote an opinion piece based on his doctoral research at Harvard, in the July 14th issue of The New York Times in which he begs to differ with reports that child abuse and neglect decreased during the our recent Great Recession. In “How Googling Unmasks Child Abuse,” Stephens-Davidowitz explains that by looking at “an analysis of anonymous, aggregate Google searches,” from 2006 to 2009, he learned that mistreatment of children did not in fact drop during the recession. The categories he examined were:

  •           Child fatality rates – Increased during the financial downturn in states hardest hit by the recession
  • “My dad hit me”  key words – Most likely from recent abuse victims old enough to use Google
  • Common classes of Google queries like “child neglect” and “child abuse” – Relevant searches from those who saw something that worried them, so they asked Google about “signs” or “effects” of child abuse.

          Stephens-Davidowitz claims that the number of these Google queries is so large that the “overall rates are telling,” in that they are enormously “larger than in any survey or poll.”

          “I used a novel technique for studying such child maltreatment: an analysis of anonymous, aggregate Google searches … Online, often unobserved, we tend to be very honest.” He examined searches that he analyzed as being likely to have been made by recent victims of abuse.

          So, why were fewer cases of child abuse and neglect reported during the Great Recession? One answer Stephens-Davidowitz gives is that social program budgets were severely slashed in many states.  That had a domino effect that led to overworked mandated reporters such as doctors, nurses and teachers being less likely to adhere to the reporting process. Likewise, staffs at child protective services agencies were stretched thin and worked shorter hours, which affected their abilities and inclinations to report cases.

          In tough budgetary times, it seems the programs that protect children are some of the first to be set back financially, which leads to staff cutbacks.  This is a major way the United States fails its children, especially when they most need government protections. Many factors contribute to this lack of love. To name a few:

  • According to the article, even in so-called normal times, primary care doctors “admit in surveys that they do not report 27 percent of suspicious incidents.”
  • According to the Department of Health and Human Services, most victims are maltreated by their mothers.
  • Children in low socioeconomic families and children in households where both parents are unemployed are at high risk for abuse or neglect.  
  • Neglectful families tend to have more children and/or a chaotic lifestyle where, say, a mother and her children live on and off with others.

          America needs the help of social services agencies that are well funded and staffed to the max.  In 2011, approximately 681,000 children were abused. True societal love for children requires that would-be single parents and parents who are chronically unemployed be educated about the option to avoid, or stop, making kids, in spite of the fact that many get tax credits for each child they produce. If we fail to fund these kinds of programs, let’s admit to our societal, cultural, and political lack of love for children. There are too many young people living in terrible circumstances.  And there are Enough of Us in general.

 

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