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The Connection Between Poverty and Child Abuse, Neglect


In Michigan, the “Kids Count” data report for 2009 was released this week, which examines trends in child well-being in 83 counties. Overall, childhood poverty increased by 6% between 2005 and 2007. In some areas of the state, particularly rural counties, more than one in three children live in poverty and confirmed cases of neglect and abuse are rising – up 16% between 2000 and 2008.

Kids Count in Michigan is a collaborative effort between the Michigan League for Human Services and Michigan’s Children, with funding in part from local United Way agencies.

Diane Dykstra, President of the local Wexford-Missaukee Child Protection Council, where the number of families investigated has risen from 894 in 2000 to 1,146 in 2008, was not surprised by the report. The mission of her program is to reduce child abuse and neglect through community education. She states that she has also seen an increase in the number of children removed from homes related to parent substance abuse.

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According to the report “Primary Prevention of Child Abuse”, about 3 million cases of abuse are reported in the United States each year, with the majority being classified as neglect, which includes physical, emotional, and educational neglect. High poverty rate is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect – children who live in families with an annual income less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused or neglected. Stressors such as unemployment, single parenthood, limited access to health care, housing instability, and exposure to environmental hazards contribute to neglect. Substance abuse is another known risk factor, with an estimated 40% of confirmed cases of child abuse being related to parental substance abuse.

Poor economic times do not only result in struggling families. Continued budget cuts to social service programs may further exacerbate the problem. Jane Zehnder-Merrell, study director and researcher at the Michigan League for Human Services says, “Going forward, this is not going to be good news when…you’re slashing all of those programs that give these kids a fighting chance.” The positive outcomes of the Kids Count report, including a drop in teen birth rate, is credited to public awareness programs, better health care and after-school activities that keep children off the streets.

Author and activist Pearl S. Buck said, “If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.”
Children who are subject to abuse are up to 6 times more likely to drop out of school and be delinquent or criminal as adults.

The first provision for children should be basic human needs, such as shelter, nutrition, education, and safety. Primary prevention programs also focus on strengthening family and community connections and support. Respect for the integrity of the family is vital, as parents should be encouraged to contribute to their child’s growth and development. Parents need to be given the opportunity to participate in community programs that empower them and provide training for skills that may be lacking in parenting practices.

For more information about the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, visit www.childabuse.org. For more information about the Child Welfare Information Gateway, see www.childwelfare.org.