The headlines are appalling, somehow more so in that they are from this newspaper: “ Texas mother arrested for allegedly killing son, 6, found along South Berwick road” and
“Police say mother was drunk and high when dog killed her daughter.”
Review headlines from 50 or 100 years ago and similar horror stories can be found. But statistics suggest a worsening trend. In fact, the United States has the highest rate of child abuse in the world.
According to a recent congressional report, a child in the U.S. dies from abuse or neglect every five hours. In 2009, some 2,500 child deaths were attributed to abuse. Death rates for children from abuse ranged from 4.05 per 100,000 children in Texas to 0.35 per 100,000 in New Hampshire. Maine’s rate was 1.46 per 100,000 children.
The U.S. national rate of death by abuse is 2.4 per 100,000. That’s about five times higher than that in the United Kingdom and 11 times greater than in Italy. One explanation for the high rate of child deaths at the hands of those who are supposed to be caring for them is that the U.S. lacks the social safety net found in Europe.
But there are other factors. One is that parents — both mothers and fathers — face increasing stress. They work harder and longer for income that fails to keep pace with costs. Their jobs demand more time and commitment — often time without compensation — than ever before.
And more parents are alone than ever before. About a quarter of U.S. children are being raised by single parents. In 1970, it was about 11 percent.
The unemployment rate for single mothers hit a 25-year high in the wake of the recession. Single mothers are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as married women and men, recent Census data reveals.
A mother who kills her child is an aberration and not a trend, but those mothers may be the proverbial canary in a coal mine.
Dean Crocker, president and CEO of the Maine Children’s Alliance, believes life-threatening child abuse and neglect are getting worse. The lack of money, he said, is one of the biggest stress factors on parents. Parents who themselves were abused and those with substance abuse problems add to the risk, Crocker said.
But the other part of the picture is that public spending as a percentage of state and federal budgets on children services has been declining for 20 years. One of the proposals before the congressional supercommittee would cut Head Start funding, including a home visit component. Child care funding has dropped over the years.
European nations spend their money devoted to children on programs serving those in the first five years of life. In the U.S., Crocker said, the majority is spent on children 14-18, too late for intervention.
One way more can be done, Crocker believes, is for community-based groups to cooperate instead of compete for limited funds. And programs that have evidence showing they work should be first in line to get the money.
Abused children don’t lobby government for funding for such programs. But protecting them from abuse is a government function as essential as any.