America's child death shame

 
Model of a child from a tv ad aimed at reducing abuse Millions of children are reported as abused and neglected every year

Why is the problem of violence against children so much more acute in the US than anywhere else in the industrialised world, asks Michael Petit, President of Every Child Matters.

Over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The child maltreatment death rate in the US is triple Canada's and 11 times that of Italy. Millions of children are reported as abused and neglected every year. Why is that?

Downward spiral

Part of the answer is that teen pregnancy, high-school dropout, violent crime, imprisonment, and poverty - factors associated with abuse and neglect - are generally much higher in the US.

Start Quote

Michael Petit

The sharp differences between the states raises the question of an expanded federal role”

End Quote Michael Petit

Further, other rich nations have social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave and visiting nurses to virtually all in need.

In the US, when children are born into young families not prepared to receive them, local social safety nets may be frayed, or non-existent. As a result, they are unable to compensate for the household stress the child must endure.

In the most severe situations, there is a predictable downward spiral and a child dies. Some 75% of these children are under four, while nearly half are under one.

Geography matters a lot in determining child well-being. Take the examples of Texas and Vermont.

Texas prides itself in being a low tax, low service state. Its per capita income places it in the middle of the states, while its total tax burden - its willingness to tax itself - is near the bottom.

Vermont, in contrast, is at the other extreme. It is a high-tax, high-service state.

Mix of risks

In looking at key indicators of well-being, children from Texas are twice as likely to drop out of high school as children from Vermont. They are four times more likely to be uninsured, four times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly twice as likely to die from abuse and neglect.

Texas spending

  • $6.25 billion (£4.01bn) spent in 2007 on direct and indirect costs dealing with after-effects of child abuse and neglect
  • $0.05 billion (£0.03bn) budgeted in 2011 for prevention and early intervention

Source: Univ of Houston, TexProtects

In Texas, a combination of elements add to the mix of risks that a child faces. These include a higher poverty rate in Texas, higher proportions of minority children, lower levels of educational attainment, and a political culture which holds a narrower view of the role of government in addressing social issues.

Texas, like many other traditionally conservative states, is likely to have a weaker response to families that need help in the first place, and be less efficient in protecting children after abuse occurs.

The sharp differences between the states raises the question of an expanded federal role.

Are children Texas children first? Or are they first American children with equal opportunity and protection?

Blame parents?

A national strategy, led by our national government, needs to be developed and implemented. For a start, the Congress should adopt legislation that would create a National Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

Woman holding a baby Nearly half the child fatalities in 2009 were children under the age of one

And no children's programmes should be on the chopping block, federal or state. Children did not crash the US economy. It is both shortsighted economic policy and morally wrong to make them pay the price for fixing it.

But instead as the US economy lags, child poverty soars, and states cut billions in children's services, we are further straining America's already weak safety net.

Inevitably, it means more children will die. The easy answer is to blame parents and already burdened child protection workers. But easy answers don't solve complex problems.

And with millions of children injured and thousands killed, this problem is large indeed, and it deserves a large response.

Michael Petit is the president of Every Child Matters. He served as the state of Maine's human services commissioner, and as deputy of the Child Welfare League of America.

 

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  • Comment number 66.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 65.

    we in the uk need to worry about staying under torie leadership any longer, sorry to knock the yanks but were starting to see steps towards private healthcare like the us where the poor are left behind and the lowering of funds into social services with money going elsewhere bit like texas ey

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 64.

    Once again the BBC proves why it's a news source I turn to as a journalist. Here you are doing the story that America journalists shy away from. For the past five years, I've been at work on a book about this issue. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] I applaud Natalia Antelava & BBC for the courage in addressing this national shame.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 63.

    contd No part of the world is free from this horror, but some parts of the world have far less abuse of children. It makes sense to discover possible reasons why this might be so; those countries with higher stats might then learn from this & be able to do so much more to protect their vulnerable children.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 62.

    @ 56 Why on earth would anyone jeer at the spectre of child abuse, whether it takes place in the USA, UK or on the Indian subcontinent?
    By comparing figures across the world & looking at factors implicated such as poverty, educational levels, aswell as care provision, steps can be taken to reduce child abuse in areas where it is high, improving the lives &mortality of children who live there.

 

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