Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Children In Torment


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Two little boys -- toddlers in Yonkers -- died horrible deaths last July when they were left alone in a bathroom with scalding water running in the tub. The water overflowed and flooded the room. The children, in agony, were unable to escape as the water burned and blistered their feet and ankles and kept on rising. One of the boys struggled to save himself by standing on his toes, but to no avail. Authorities said that when the boys were found, they were lying face up in the water on the bathroom floor, their bodies all but completely scorched. They had burned to death.

The boys -- one was nearly three years old and the other 20 months -- had been left in the bathroom (which had a damaged door that was difficult to open) by David Maldonado, the live-in boyfriend of the boys' mother. Police said he was the father of one of the children.

The two adults had taken heroin. While the children suffered and died, the grown-ups, according to the authorities, were lying in bed, lost in a deep drug-fueled sleep. Both have pleaded guilty in connection with the deaths, and have been imprisoned.

I've been reading (and sometimes writing) stories like this for many years. Every few months or so, some horrifying child abuse case elbows its way onto the front pages, and there is a general outcry: How could this have happened? Where were the caseworkers? Lock up the monsters who did this! Let's investigate and reform the child welfare system.

And then the story subsides and we behave as if this murderous abuse of helpless children trapped in the torture chambers of their own homes has somehow subsided with it. But child abuse is a hideous, widespread and chronic problem across the country. And despite the sensational cases that periodically grab the headlines, it doesn't get nearly enough attention.

What some adults do to the children in their care can seem like behavior left over from the Inquisition. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1,500 children died from abuse or neglect in 2003, the latest year for which reasonably reliable statistics are available. That's four children every day, and that estimate is probably low. Record-keeping in some states is notoriously haphazard.

Authorities in Michigan reported the heartbreaking case of a 7-year-old, Ricky Holland, who begged his school nurse not to send him home to his adoptive parents. ''Let me stay in school,'' he pleaded.

He was later beaten to death with a hammer, prosecutors said, and his bloody body was dragged away in a garbage bag. His parents were charged with his death.

The deaths, as horrible as they are, don't begin to convey the enormity of the problem. In 2003, authorities were alerted to nearly three million cases of youngsters who were alleged to have been abused or neglected, and confirmed a million of them. The number of cases that never come to light is, of course, anybody's guess.

What's remarkable to me is that we've been hearing about this enormously tragic problem for so long, decades, and yet the reaction to each sickening case that makes it into the media spotlight is shock. How many times are we going to be shocked before serious steps are taken to alleviate the terrible suffering and prevent the horrible deaths of as many of these children as we can?

We know some things about child abuse and neglect. We know that there is a profound connection between child abuse and substance abuse, for example. We know that abuse and neglect are more likely to occur in households where money is in short supply, especially if the caregivers are unemployed. A crisis in the home heightens the chances that a child will be abused. And adults who were abused as children are more likely than others to be abusers themselves.

Child-abuse prevention programs are wholly inadequate, and child protective services, while varying in quality from state to state, are in many instances overwhelmed and largely unaccountable. The child protection system has broken down -- or was never up and running at all -- in state after state after state.

''There are no consequences to violating policy,'' said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the advocacy group Children's Rights. ''There are no consequences to violating the law.''

The kids who are most frequently the victims of abuse are from the lower economic classes. They are not from families that make a habit of voting. There is no real incentive for government officials to make the protection of these kids a priority.

They couldn't be more alone. They are no one's natural constituency.


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