Justice, dignity, equality - these are words which are often used loosely, with little appreciation of their meaning. I think that their meaning can be distilled into one goal: that every child in this country live as we would want our own children to live.
Robert F. Kennedy New York, 1965
Despite nearly three decades of legislatively mandated child protection services in Massachusetts and across the country, the number of children reported and confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect each year remains alarmingly high. From 1986 to 1997, the number of abused and neglected children jumped nationwide from 1.4 million to 3 million. This increase reflected a rise more than eight times faster than the increase in the children's population (114.3 percent compared to 13.9 percent).
The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect now estimates the number of child deaths at 2,000 each year - more than five deaths a day. Child abuse is the leading cause of death in children under age 1, while children younger than 4 years of age account for over 75 percent of child abuse and neglect deaths.
In Massachusetts over 60,000 reports of child abuse and neglect were filed in 1998, representing nearly 100,000 children. That year, 13 children who were known to the state child protection agency died - 8 from neglect, 2 from abuse, and 3 from both abuse and neglect. This number does not include other children that died as a result of abuse or neglect but were not previously referred to child protective services. Particularly sobering is the fact that while child maltreatment has been steadily growing in the Commonwealth over the past decade, other crimes of violence have shown a steady and dramatic decrease.
The links between maltreatment and poor outcomes indicate that public health rather than criminal justice responses offer the most effective ways to reduce physical and psychological morbidity in our youngest citizens and in the U.S. population at large. Neighborhood-based family supports are among the most effective ways to reduce child abuse and neglect. The success of these family supports, however, is fundamentally linked to improvements in state child protection systems and to comprehensive efforts to prevent and treat child abuse.
A recent response to the persistently high incidence of child abuse and neglect nationally has been the National Call To Action to End Child Maltreatment, initiated by Children's Hospital and Health Center-San Diego at its January 1999 "Conference on Responding to Child Maltreatment." This effort to end child abuse and neglect has now brought together over 30 of the country's leading organizations in a coalition to address this national crisis.
With the release of our report, Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MCC) launches the first, parallel State Call To Action aimed at ending child maltreatment. Through our recommendations and the mobilization of citizens to support them, we will work to achieve three fundamental long-term objectives articulated by the National Call:
1. PROTECTION: Our systems of protecting children will be revised and strengthened to deliver the highest quality response.
2. PREVENTION: Families of our youngest children will receive the support and education necessary, so that their children will not be subjected to child maltreatment.
3. HEALING: Any child who is abused or neglected will receive the full complement of therapeutic and other services and support needed, as will their families, to recover as fully as possible from the effects of that maltreatment.
Summit Initiative on Child Protection and Family Support
The essential groundwork for these changes has been laid through the efforts of over 200 child and family policy leaders across Massachusetts who have participated with MCC in the "Summit Initiative on Child Protection and Family Support." (See Appendices A and B.) The initiative was launched by MCC in May 1999 with an intensive two-day meeting involving fifty policy leaders from Massachusetts and a dozen child protection and family support experts from across the country. It was followed by five active Working Groups that met regularly over six months beginning in January 2000 to focus on specific aspects of the current system.
In the spring of 2000 three daylong Symposia were held to discuss and develop recommendations to address the implications of child trauma on brain development, behavior, and school performance. Finally, meetings and consultations with leading national and state experts helped shape other critical recommendations. Throughout this period, Massachusetts leaders explored successful practices, debated strategies, and worked together to achieve a consensus agenda for change and improvements.
The Public's View
Recommendations of the State Call To Action are part of a comprehensive and evidence-based proposal for systemic reform - reform that is strongly supported by the public.
In a 1998 poll commissioned by MCC and its program, Prevent Child Abuse Massachusetts, 46% of the 400 citizens surveyed identified "safety from abuse, neglect, and violence" as the most important element necessary to child well-being. Health care was second with 17%, followed by freedom from poverty (9%), education (9%), and childcare (4%).
A subsequent survey conducted for MCC by the University of Massachusetts Poll in the spring of 2000 supported previous findings:
- 88% consider child abuse/neglect a very serious (55%) or somewhat serious (33%) problem in Massachusetts;
- 84% believe child abuse/neglect has a very significant (51%) or somewhat significant (33%) effect on a child's MCAS scores;
- 57% think that more than half of abused/neglected children go on to develop behavior and learning problems.
In responding to their view of how our state is currently addressing these issues:
- 60% believe the child protection system needs major reform;
- Health care professionals (50%) and non-profit advocacy organizations (25%) were most frequently identified as the groups whose ideas the public would most trust on reform issues. Others included: law enforcement officials (11%), business leaders (4%), and political leaders/state officials (2%).
Results of a survey of voters conducted in 2000 by the Stride Rite Foundation to measure the public's support for early childhood education also reinforced the UMass results. In addition to documenting support for this critical educational goal, 54 percent of voters identified the need to reduce violence against women and children.
The Summit Initiative on Child Protection and Family Support has crafted a consensus agenda among key professionals in child welfare, health, mental health, and law enforcement. As our discussions confirmed, the systems involved in preventing child abuse and in protecting and healing victimized children are complex. Multiple strategies, both short and long term, will be required to implement proposed solutions. Working together, however, we believe a strong, bi-partisan political will can be forged - one that will ensure today's children and generations to come a safe childhood and a future filled with hope.
In the months ahead, Massachusetts Citizens for Children will continue to bring together leaders and advocates to further refine the State Call To Action. We will work to educate, build, and mobilize the constituency for children by involving citizens, legislators, front-line workers, state officials, local faith leaders, the business community, and, importantly, those personally affected by child abuse and neglect. MCC will remain committed to providing leadership for the broad-based effort to end child maltreatment in Massachusetts until that vision is realized.
Jetta Bernier, Executive Director
Nora Sjoblom Sanchez, Esq.