published Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Cleaveland: State must protect its children

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Violence foreclosed the future of 5-year-old Landon Robbins, who died Aug. 30 from injuries inflicted upon him by adults. He might have grown up to become a teacher, a fireman, a farmer or a merchant. He might have founded a family and enjoyed hikes with his children. We shall never know.

We can ponder this tragedy for a few days until it is displaced by another calamity. The victim becomes a statistic. Or we can use Landon’s death as a catalyst to spare other children from similar fates.

The Child Mistreatment Report for 2011, issued by the Federal Children’s Bureau, summarizes data on the abuse of children. For the year, neglect accounted for 78.5 percent of reported cases, physical abuse for 17.6 percent, and sexual abuse for 9.1 percent. The total exceeds 100 percent since some children may have suffered more than one type of abuse. in 2011, 1,545 children died as a consequence of abuse, more than four per day.

Parents accounted for four-fifths of abusers, with men and women equally guilty. Forty percent of abusers were white, 28 percent were black and 18 percent were Hispanic.

In Tennessee in 2011, 29 children died from abuse. There were more than 59,000 referrals for suspected child abuse that year from a population of 1.5 million children. No one knows how many cases go unreported, where children suffer anonymously and repeatedly.

Poverty, illicit drug use and alcohol are major factors in cases of child abuse. I attended school with poor children who, in retrospect, were victims of neglect and physical abuse. During my practice years as a doctor, adults showed me scars on their legs from beatings delivered sometimes by parents who considered themselves devout Christians. The psychological scars were invisible.

We can address child abuse immediately through support of volunteer organizations that work on the frontlines of poverty and social distress. Metropolitan Ministries (www.metropolitanministries.org), Partnership for Families, Children and Adults (www.partnershipfca.com), Chattanooga Community Kitchen (www.homelesschattanooga.org) and the Chattanooga Food Bank (www.chattfoodbank.org) provide vital help for families and individuals in desperate circumstances. Many agencies perform essential services in these venues.

The federal government provides research, data analysis and funding for children’s services. The Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov) is a unique resource for information on national and state programs.

To qualify for funding, each state is required under federal statute to provide a range of services for children at risk. States have leeway in designing and implementing programs to address the needs of children within their borders.

Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has a disturbing, uneven history in recent years. In 2000, Children’s Rights, a national organization, and a group of attorneys within our state won a class action lawsuit (Brian A v. Bredesen) against the state for violating the rights of children in its care. Children’s Rights was granted oversight of DCS.

More recently, DCS has been under court order to release records of foster children in its care. In 2010, the department spent $27 million to install a flawed computer system to track abused and neglected children. At issue is the number of children who have died or suffered injury while in state supervision. Newspapers in the state sued for access to the information. When ordered by Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy to release the records, DCS countered with a charge of $55,000 to copy the records. The Tennessean newspaper reported on Sept. 20 that DCS had agreed to release at no charge all records from July 2012 forward of children who may have died or suffered injury. The release of prior records is uncertain.

DCS, our state’s agency for preventing child abuse, continues to create a smokescreen around its activities. Does this reflect incompetence or a cover up? Why did the tracking system fail? Where are the transparency and accountability to the public? Where are our legislators? Can they not convene public hearings on DCS performance? Cannot the governor order change?

No child should go hungry, suffer abuse or neglect, or live in fear. To assure safe passage for children to adulthood the dedication of all adults working in coordination through volunteer organizations, religious institutions, schools, and governmental agencies is essential. Tennessee should lead the way in cherishing its children.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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