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What Story do the Numbers Tell?
Select which items belong together and which one is different:
- Massachusetts ranks third in the nation on overall child well-being.
- Massachusetts children lead the nation in educational achievement.
- Massachusetts has the lowest teen birth rate for 15-19 year olds in the country.
- Massachusetts has the highest percentage of children covered by health insurance.
- Massachusetts has the lowest overall child death rate in the country.
- Massachusetts has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in the U.S.
Ready for the answer?
The first five items reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project are based on robust, defensible data. The last item reported in the federal Child Maltreatment 2014 Report should not be presented as a stand-alone fact.
A recent Boston Globe Editorial “Scrutiny could save children’s lives,” provides the seemingly incontrovertible statement that Massachusetts has “the highest rate of abused and neglected children in the nation…” In support of transparency around child abuse cases, which is what the editorial was arguing for, it would have benefited readers to be informed that comparing states on child maltreatment rates is an “apples and oranges” exercise, and not all purported “facts” are what they seem.
States operate their child protection systems on one of five levels of evidence. The strictest, “clear and convincing,” requires that an individual making a report of child abuse, must convince the state that their concern is “substantially more likely than not to be true.” Eight-five percent of states require less strict levels of evidence, i.e. “credible” “probable cause” or “preponderance.” Only six, including Massachusetts, accept reports at the lowest level of evidence. In these states, a concerned citizen or mandated reporter need only have “reasonable” cause to believe that a child is suffering from abuse or neglect. This clearly impacts the number of reports received and investigated by child protection agencies, the data that states then report to the federal government, and the facts that the media then promote and the public come to believe.
For example, Kansas which requires the strictest “clear and convincing” evidence, reports only 2.8 of 1,000 children are victims of child maltreatment in their state, whereas, Massachusetts with the lowest level of “reasonable” evidence reports 22.9 of 1,000 children are victims. The high bar Kansas sets is also reflected in the percentage of confirmed physical abuse cases reported there, which is twice as high as in Massachusetts - 21.2 % of cases versus 10.8 %. Sexual abuse cases there constitute 29% of all cases, yet only 2.3% in Massachusetts.
Failure to identify the types of maltreatment being substantiated continues to fuel the public’s false belief that most maltreated children are suffering from serious, life-threatening physical abuse. In fact, 94% of all confirmed cases in Massachusetts involve child neglect which because of its chronic negative impact on a child’s physical and emotional health, is also serious. However, this high rate is more likely a product of family economic challenges and Massachusetts’ persistent and unacceptable 15% child poverty rate, rather than the result of parental incompetence or cruelty.
Massachusetts citizens and professionals report more cases of child maltreatment because its “reasonable cause” policy encourages them to. Also, several high profile cases have sensitized the public to the need to report any suspected child maltreatment. This is not uncommon. Note that in post-Sandusky Pennsylvania, the percentage of sexual abuse reports now comprises over 60% of all reported child maltreatment.
No state in the country can point to a child protection system without flaws and challenges. The mandate to address the needs of children living in dysfunctional families involved in violence, substance abuse, and poverty is the toughest burden of any state agency. Advocating for better child protection policies at the Department of Children and Families, and more support for efforts to prevent child abuse from ever occurring must be our priorities.
We should recognize, however, that more reports lead to more identified victims and that’s a good thing for kids. Rather than using unexplained data which promotes the notion that our state, its citizens, and its child protection system are callous to children and incompetent to protect them, let’s consider it a badge of honor that our Commonwealth casts a wide net to early identify and respond to children suffering from abuse and neglect.
Jetta Bernier, Executive Director
14 Beacon Street
April 13, 2016