NEWTON, Mass. - We all know the casualty count from the terrorism unleashed on our country far exceeds those who have died.
It also includes the family members whose emotional wounds may never heal, the men, women and children whose sense of personal safety may never be fully restored and the rapidly growing number of Americans who are losing their jobs.
We know about these people because we see their faces and hear their voices every day, in the media and in our lives. Our hearts go out to them, and we try mightily to assist them, as well we should.
But more than a half-million devastated Americans have received no attention to date, no words of compassion, no offers of help, because they are mute and invisible. They are the children who live in foster care, and I worry what will happen to them if we don't soon realize they, too, are becoming casualties of the madness that started Sept. 11.
Many already are suffering because they don't have a parent to explain the inexplicable events unfolding around them or to soothe their fears. Worst of all, the tragedy disrupting all our lives is undermining theirs by lowering their odds of getting such a parent.
My apprehension is based partly on the understanding that a single subject - a critically important one, to be sure - could crowd many others off of personal and governmental agendas for a long time. But I think there also are specific reasons for concern:
The generosity people have shown in the last few months is heartening, but some clearly are becoming emotionally and financially drained. Many nonprofit groups already are reporting lower contributions, and the ones devoted to helping kids are suffering among the steepest declines.
Americans are embracing their families as seldom before. Whatever effects this psychological circling of the wagons may have on those inside, it doesn't seem conducive to letting others in; social service agencies already report a decline in applications for foster and adoptive parents.
The media's impressive work has concentrated, properly, on the war, the anthrax attacks and their complex consequences. But journalists have not yet identified the children in foster care as being among the collateral damage, and any researcher will tell you these kids' best chance of finding permanent homes comes when the public hears or reads their stories.
As massive sums of money flow to security at home and war abroad, it will get tougher to persuade politicians to devote dollars to a system that never received adequate attention even during the best of times. Children stay in foster care for so long largely because society hasn't provided sufficient resources to help them or their parents, to hire enough social workers or to recruit enough foster and adoptive parents.
Let me say, loud and clear, that I want to be wrong.
Assuming the fight against terrorism really will be a long-term enterprise, we need to identify our national priorities quickly, or risk losing track of them entirely if the going gets really tough. The children who depend on society's benevolence to survive should be among those priorities.
If events since Sept. 11 have taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as too early when lives are at stake. There is only too late.
Adam Pertman, a journalist and lecturer on family issues, is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America (Basic Books, 2000).