Where welfare reform and child abuse meet

March 20, 2000|By Harold A. Smith

WHY ARE more children dying from abuse? Why are more children in psychiatric distress than ever before?

Conventional wisdom suggests that abuse increases when times are hard and decreases when the economy is strong.

Yet while our economy surges, recent articles in The Sun report alarming increases in child abuse deaths and commitments of children to psychiatric hospitals. Both articles raise questions of possible links between welfare reform and an increase in child abuse.

Our experience in Catholic Charities suggests that, indeed, a deadly connection exists between these two issues that occurs because of a reduction in the state's vigilance to investigate child abuse complaints while welfare reform progresses. In the years ahead, we believe these abused children and our society will pay an enormous price as a result.

Unfortunately, fewer investigations create the appearance of a reduction in child abuse. Catholic Charities' experience and the recent Sun articles challenge the assertion that we are reducing the number of children in child welfare while we are reducing the number of welfare recipients. At a time when the state loses contact with families as they opt out or are sanctioned off public assistance, we should not at the same time be reducing our vigilance toward child abuse.

While we congratulate ourselves on the robust strength of our economy, more families in crisis are appearing on the doorsteps of agencies like Catholic Charities. The families bring more serious problems, and they bring more abused and neglected children.

Child abuse is fueled by many agents, including drugs, poverty and ignorance. Of the three, ignorance is the most dangerous, for what we don't know can kill our children. Consider some seemingly good news that has surfaced recently. The University of Maryland School of Social Work reports that few children have entered the formal foster care system after their families leave welfare. A study by Maryland's Department of Legislative Services shows a slight decrease in child abuse and neglect cases. In Baltimore City, the number of entries into foster care has decreased from 290 a month to 219.

But, when we look more closely at these optimistic indicators, a different, disturbing story appears. The child abuse reporting process involves a practice known as "screening out." When a complaint is lodged with the Department of Social Services, it is standard practice to determine if, in fact, the complaint warrants a closer look. In half of U.S. states, the "screen out" rate averages 30.8 percent. That is, child abuse investigators decide not to investigate about a third of the calls they receive.

In Maryland, the screen-out rate is 50 percent. At Catholic Charities' St. Vincent's Center, we serve 72 physically or sexually abused children. Children between the ages of 4 and 11 are referred to our care by the State Department of Human Resources. We currently are serving nine children who are 4 or 5 years old. The abuse occurring today is more severe and is beginning at younger and younger ages.

The abuse these children have suffered should be our state's shame.

At My Sister's Place, Catholic Charities' day shelter for women, the number of homeless women and children increases by 20 percent a year, despite declines in the unemployment rate. Small children drift from shelters to the streets and back again in a grim dance that leads to suffering, pain -- or worse. In 1996, My Sister's Place served 515 women and 99 children. Last year, My Sister's Place served 721 women and 558 children.

This dramatic increase illustrates the extent of the impact of welfare reform on some families. These children are living on the street and are at high risk for abuse. When that abuse occurs and self-esteem is crushed at such an early age, an evolution to a life filled with bad choices almost inevitably follows. Ample evidence shows a high percentage of prison inmates were abused as children.

Child abuse, welfare reform, poverty, drug abuse and crime all exist as separate issues, but they are inextricably connected. Addressing the issue of child abuse as a statewide priority will go far toward alleviating problems in these other areas.

Maryland must staff its child welfare offices with enough trained workers to reduce caseloads and allow proper investigations and oversight. We must have enough drug treatment programs to address the overwhelming need, and we must adequately fund the centers that treat abused children.

But, most of all, we need a statewide resolve from our governor, our legislature and ourselves that we will not tolerate the abuse of our children.

Harold A. Smith is executive director of Catholic Charities.

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