Columns 2009

When will we put our money where our mouth is?

Once again the headlines tell a sad, sad story. American children are still killed by their parents or caregivers with disgusting regularity. An article in the Oct. 27 Anchorage Daily News quoted a report from the national child advocacy group, Every Child Matters, that 16 children died in Alaska due to parental abuse from 2001 to 2007. The report added that those 16 were only the documented number; the real number is probably much higher.

Perhaps even more frightening, Alaska public health researchers reported in 2008 that over the past eleven years, 114 babies had died “from abuse, neglect or ‘gross negligence.’ Some suffocated in their sleep. Some didn’t get needed medical care. Six were shaken to death; seven were killed by being thrown, dropped, hit or kicked.”

Helluva childhood, eh?

Sometimes the slain children are the targets of the violence; sometimes they are simply the collateral damage of domestic abuse. Either way, they end up dead long before they’ve really had a chance to live. And we, as a society, are once again forced to face one of the thorniest questions that can be presented to a country that prides itself on its commitment to the ideal of personal freedom and the sanctity of the family unit – when and how much should government intervene in family life.

If you think the screams are loud when you propose restricting gun rights at all, wait until you hear the screams when you propose that government be allowed into the family anymore than it already is.

But surely we have an obligation to a little baby whose only sin in life is to be born into the wrong family.  Surely we have a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. It’s one thing to read about abused children, or see their picture on TV or see a movie about them. It’s another thing to actually encounter one of these children – a five year old with hideous bruises all over his body, a three year old who’s been raped, a ten year old with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from the years of violence that was his or her childhood. 

I have no brilliant idea to bring to this discussion about the violent deaths of children in the one place where they should be the most safe. The solution I’d propose is one that would work only in a country with no regard for individual rights. Personally, I recommend forced sterilization of both parents of any family in which domestic violence and/or alcohol abuse is a routine part of life. That way, the adults could get drunk and pummel each other as much as they wanted without bringing a helpless child into the mix who is unable to dial 911 when being beaten against a wall or shaken to the point of brain damage.

I suppose an argument could be made for more money for more workers so that troubled families could receive more help before a child dies.  But having spent thirty years in the field, I have no hope that people will willingly back the kind of funding needed for that level of service.  As a society we talk a much better story about our kids being our future than we actually back up with the help families need for real change.

So the headline about 16 children dying at the hands of their parents or caretakers today follows a long line of such headlines over the years. For a brief moment there will be an outcry and a demand that something be done.  But when the cost of that “something” is proposed it will have little general support from a public already feeling abused by taxes.

Here’s a prophesy from me you can wager your annual salary on with great assurance of winning – in ten years or less, another study will be done about another dozen or so children killed by their family, there will be another brief outcry and then everyone will get back to business as usual with nothing changed and nothing done.

Or this time we could gird our loins and actually put our money where our mouth is to prevent these tragedies. Because, quite honestly, this is one bet I’d be thrilled to lose.