Shocking Failure To Protect Children

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Arizona’s shocking failure to even investigate reports of child abuse — much less actually protect children — has finally spurred a political crisis.

Gov. Jan Brewer yesterday set up a task force to review 6,100 cases Child Protective Services classified as “Not Investigated” in the course of the past four years. That comes on top of the current backlog of 10,000 cases not investigated within the two months mandated by law.

The governor said such official neglect is “inexcusable.”

We would laugh, if we weren’t overcome with the need to weep for these children.

This shameful crisis has been a cancer growing in plain sight for years. Arizona already had CPS caseloads 77 percent above the national standard when the state Legis­lature slashed funding during the recession. Gov. Brewer pushed half-heartedly for an increase in the number of CPS caseworkers this year and has proposed another increase for the upcoming year. But the belated and inadequate efforts won’t come close to solving the problem.

The incidence of child abuse and neglect has grown inexorably in this state, which has increasingly abandoned its children.

Tragically, the failure to even investigate reports of abuse and neglect remains just the lump that marks the cancer beneath. The number of children in foster care has soared from 9,000 a few years ago to 15,000 now — creating a terrible shortage in the number of foster homes. Moreover, children in out-of-home care must struggle to get the services they need. Equally tragic, families struggling with the problems that lead to abuse and neglect can’t get the help they need either.

Repeated cases here in Rim Country have demonstrated the awful consequences of ignoring those early reports. Today’s story details a few of those cases. Time and again, CPS has either ignored abuse or left children in homes despite overwhelming evidence.

Make no mistake: We will all pay a heavy price for this failure. Study after study has documented the ghastly impact of child abuse and neglect — not just on the helpless children, but on the larger society. Such abuse festers close to the root of every social problem we face, including drug and alcohol abuse, crime, education and mental illness.

A comprehensive study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies put the cost of child abuse at more than $80 billion to $94 billion annually, which includes hospitalization, law enforcement, child welfare, special education, juvenile and adult criminal justice, homelessness and lost productivity.

Sophisticated research shows that child abuse literally shapes the brains of its victims. The terror of that abuse affects the development of the child’s amygdala, which regulates emotions like fear and anxiety. It also affects the development of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for thinking, planning, reasoning and decision-making. The abuse we ignore can shape a child’s brain for life.

The Department of Health and Human Services maintains a Web site (www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/ foundation/foundationf.cfm) that summarizes some of the research on the dismaying long-term effect of our willingness to abandon children to abuse and neglect. Children subject to such treatment face a greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment difficulties, eating disorders, suicide, drug abuse, mental illness, impaired cognitive function, lowered achievement in school.

One study found that abuse and neglect increase the odds a child will end up in the juvenile justice system by 53 percent and in the adult criminal system by 38 percent. Maltreated children have a 25 percent greater risk of teen problems like delinquency, pregnancy, drug use, low academic achievement and mental health problems. Tragically, those who suffer child abuse and neglect are more likely to falter as parents as well — perpetuating the damage from one generation to the next.

Of course, many children who suffer terrible abuse and neglect go on to live full, rich, happy, productive lives. Moreover, studies have shown that timely intervention and adequate support and services can play a huge role in helping a child cope with these impacts.

Clearly, if we would decrease the incidence of all of those problems, we must carefully investigate every report of abuse, provide timely assistance to any family struggling to break the cycle and guarantee full support for foster parents and children seeking to recover from the effects of this blight.

We hope the Legislature will not let politics dominate their response to this tragedy. Gov. Brewer has rightly called the state’s failure “inexcusable.” We hope that the Legislature will not let this turn into a campaign issue — with exaggerated claims on both sides. That will only happen if both parties make protecting children from abuse and neglect their top priority in an era when rising state revenues offer a chance to make a difference.

But we suspect that will only happen if the voters make it clear to their own elected representatives that they’re watching — and will vote accordingly.

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