Child welfare professionals believe our role is to prevent continued abuse of children. In our effort to keep children safe, we often remove those alleged to be maltreated from their homes and families. We then require their parents to complete case plan tasks designed to remedy the harm that brought the children into care. We determine if and when it is safe for the children to be reunified with their families. Sometimes, when parents are unwilling or unable to complete court-ordered tasks, we permanently sever the parent/child relationship, and place the children for adoption into new, permanent families.
Thousands of us in the child welfare system work tirelessly every day to ensure our children’s safety and care. Our staff and volunteers spend countless hours training to become experts on the issue of child abuse, studying the psychological impact of abuse, the impact of trauma and the impact of abuse on childhood brain development. We learn all we can about domestic violence and addictions. However, I believe we’ve failed to consider child abuse as a global issue that is greater than the sum of its parts. The abuse of children is a violation of their human rights, not simply a symptom of intergenerational abuse, substance addiction or mental illness.
Human rights are those basic rights and ?freedoms all people are entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language or other status. Children are entitled to even greater protections because of their vulnerability. In addition to their basic right to be provided food, clothing, shelter, an education and medical care, all children are entitled to being physically, mentally and emotionally free from abuse. If we make this belief the foundation of our work, we should see our roles not as preventers of abuse, but as guardians of our children’s fundamental human rights. We’d develop a true and constant sense of urgency about protecting the rights of children.
The United Nations, in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notes that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Every day, we are outraged when we read or hear in the news about children who have been abused. In the juvenile dependency system, we see the impact of the most “barbarous acts” which have been carried out against children every day. The nationwide statistics on child abuse are alarming. Across the U.S., approximately 3.3 million allegations of child abuse and neglect involving 6 million children were made to child protective agencies in 2009. An estimated 763,000 children were substantiated as victims of child maltreatment in the same year.
African-American children, American-Indian or Alaska-Native children and children of multiple races had the highest rates of victimization at 15.1, 11.6, and 12.4 victims per 1,000 children, respectively. Hispanic children and Caucasian children had rates of 8.7 and 7.8 per 1,000 children. Asian children had the lowest rate of 2.0 per 1,000 children. Nearly one-half of all victims were white (44 percent), one-fifth were African-American (22.3 percent) and one fifth were Hispanic (20.7 percent). Nationally, an estimated 1,770 children died from abuse or neglect. Children 0-4 years old accounted for 80.8 percent of child fatalities. Children younger than one accounted for 46.2 percent of all child fatalities. On Sept. 30, 2009, there were 423,773 children in foster care, spending a median of 15.4 months there.
Isn’t it time we ask ourselves, as a community, “What are we doing to safeguard our children’s human rights?” Outside of those of us involved in the dependency court system, how are we as a community ensuring that all the fundamental rights to which our children are entitled are being guaranteed? The statistics tell us we can no longer continue to define the problem as an abuse issue to be solved by experts. Instead, we need to define child maltreatment as a human rights issue and, as a community, commit to being part of the solution. Our children are in crisis. We should all be sharing in ensuring that our children’s fundamental rights are protected.
If the barbarous acts of abuse haven’t outraged our community’s conscience, perhaps the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States will. In 2010, the estimated direct cost of abuse was approximately $33 billion, broken down as follows:
Services Estimated Annual C
Mental Health Care System $1,080,706,049
Child Welfare Services System $25,361,329,051
Law Enforcement $33,307,770
Total Direct Cost $33,101,302,133
Equally disturbing are the indirect costs:
Services Estimated Annual Indirect C
Special Education $2,410,306,242
Juvenile Delinquency $7,174,814,134
Mental Health and Health Care $67,863,457
Adult Criminal Justice System $27,979,811,982
Lost Productivity to Society $33,019,919,544
Total Indirect Cost $70,652,715,359
$100 billion in combined costs should be enough of an incentive for all of us in the Northeast Florida community to make the protection of our children’s rights a priority.
We can no longer afford to ignore our children’s cries for help. Abused children are in our community. They live in the shadows of all of our lives. She might be the little girl in your child’s class who has unexplained scars or bruises, or he may be the lonely child at the park who doesn’t join in the games. We all have an obligation to protect the rights of our children.
One of the ways you can help is to volunteer. Become a Guardian ad Litem volunteer. GAL volunteers are part of a statewide organization which trains and supports volunteers — people just like you — to speak and act as advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children. Through this advocacy, they ensure all our children’s rights are protected. With the help of a GAL volunteer, a child is half as likely to languish in the foster care system, and much more likely to find a safe, permanent home. However, only about 66 percent of the children currently in care in our community have access to a volunteer. To ensure that every child in foster care has an advocate, the GAL Program is actively recruiting ?more volunteers.
Every child has the right to thrive, to be treated with dignity and to live in a safe, loving home. Every child deserves a fighting chance. Once grown, these children could be our future lawyers, doctors, teachers and leaders. Children with a GAL volunteer understand their potential, and learn to believe in themselves. That is our community’s opportunity and our challenge.
I invite everyone who has a heart for children to join us, and become a champion for their human rights. Call the Guardian ad Litem Program at (904) 630-1200 and find out how you can help.
Hilary A. Creary
Creary is the director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.