There was good news for families recently out of our nation's capital, as reports of child abuse and neglect declined for the sixth year in a row.
According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, reported cases of abuse fell from just over 900,000 children in 1998 to an estimated 826,000 in 1999. The numbers continue a downward trend that began in 1993, since which time, reports of victimized children have declined by 19.2 percent from a record 1,018,692.
The Bush administration called the results encouraging but unacceptable. One abused child is one too many, and helping keep the downward trend intact is something on which we all can agree --especially here in Alaska, where we can boast no such inroads in the battle against this terrible malaise.
In the same period that national statistics showed a 19.2 percent decline, total cases of abuse in Alaska increased by 12.4 percent -- from 14,617 cases in 1993 to 16,433 cases in 1999, according to the state Division of Family and Youth Services.
Nationally, our state's statistics are nothing short of shameful. In 1996, the most recent year for such complete information, the Child Welfare League of America reported that Alaska led the nation in cases of abuse and neglect, with 40.9 children per 1,000. This far outdistanced second-place Kentucky (28 children per 1,000) and is more than 25 times the rate of North Dakota, which registered the lowest reports of abuse and neglect. Additionally, Alaska ranks fifth in the number of children under the age of 18 who are removed from their homes.
Too many studies link child abuse with other problems, such as drug use and violent or antisocial behavior. Abused and neglected children pay a terrible price individually. But the cost in dollars is borne by society, and those social costs are staggering. Prevent Child Abuse America reports that child abuse and neglect drains the United States of an estimated $258 million each day -- or $94 billion a year. This steep price tag includes hospital visits, court costs and police hours, as well as indirect costs, such as special education and mental health care for mistreated children.
In Washington, President Bush has promised more federal funds for prevention programs. He wants to ad $200 million to a $305 million child abuse and neglect program called Safe and Stable Families. And we applaud the move.
But what can we do in Alaska to get on track with the rest of the country in the downward trend? Clearly, education is essential to breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect, making our Legislature's recent refusal to include awareness education at the grade school level short-sighted. Sticking our collective head in the sand should never be considered a viable option to solving this heinous problem.
The responsibility does not end with our legislators though. Early intervention is crucial here, as is support for new and "high-risk" parents. It's a community problem that should have a community solution -- one of which we can all be a part, especially as we observe April as Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.
''We must remain committed to ensuring that all children live in safe, permanent and loving homes," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Only then can we Alaskans share in the nation's pride in the declining incidence of child abuse.
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