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Working toward answers

In the end, there remain more questions than answers.

How can families break the cycle of abuse?

When does poverty affect the welfare of a child?

How can Washington and Idaho learn from child fatalities when death review teams are overwhelmed and underfunded?

This month, The Spokesman-Review, with the help of national and community experts, highlighted several ways to improve the health and welfare of children in the Inland Northwest. They include:

“Adequately fund child fatality reviews in Washington and Idaho. Such confidential, multi-agency reviews examine and record the causes of a child’s death and help states identify trends. In 2003, Washington slashed funding for its fatality reviews, resulting in a fragmented and broken system. Idaho is the only state in the nation that does not review the deaths of its children.

“Invest in early intervention programs to save money in the future. The Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends nurses into the homes of poor, first-time mothers, has demonstrated success in reducing reports of child abuse and neglect, trips to the emergency room and criminal behavior among both generations. The Washington legislative budget for 2008 includes $3.5 million for home visits.

“Work to understand and address the disproportionate representation of African American and Native American children in the Washington and Idaho child welfare systems. Children from minority families are more likely to be placed in foster care – despite national statistics that say children of color are no more likely to be abused than white children.

The newspaper’s Our Kids: Our Business coverage focused on highlighting and explaining the perpetual pervasiveness of child maltreatment in the Inland Northwest. The reporting included more than 50 stories, as well as student essays and editorials. More than 1,700 people signed the newspaper’s Call to Action, a promise to work to improve the welfare of children in their communities.

“It’s become crystal clear that Spokane is riding a tidal wave,” said Janice Marich, interim president of the Spokane County United Way. “Now, it’s about going upstream and saying, ‘How can we address systemic issues that are affecting our community?’ “

Funding stagnant

National, state and local experts warned against expecting easy answers, but instead continually highlighted the importance of a system of support services.

Those include programs not just for prevention of child abuse, but also those that help low-income families find adequate housing, support for early learning programs and access to public health nurses, among others.

All that costs money in a region where funding for social services has barely budged.

In Washington and Idaho, federal dollars for child welfare have stagnated. Since 2001, Washington’s federal dollars grew 1.3 percent annually, failing to keep pace with inflation. In Idaho, federal funds have remained flat for eight years. The state’s federal funding for child welfare actually dropped $2.2 million in the past two years, or about 6 percent.

In Spokane, the city’s general fund dollars for human services jumped in 2003, but have since declined slightly.

“All of us on the social service side understand that you need financial resources to do something,” said Sally Pritchard, community impact manager at the Spokane County United Way. “This has not been a community that has been able to come up with a lot of new resources.”

Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Families and Children: Spokane, pointed to Portland’s Children’s Investment Fund, which taxes homeowners about 40 cents per $1,000 in assessed value to support children’s services. For a $150,000 home, owners pay an additional $60 in taxes per year. An allocation committee determines city funding priorities, focusing on early childhood and parenting education, after-school programs, and services that work to prevent and intervene in child abuse cases.

“If there’s no new money, it’s difficult to reach any new kids,” said Marilee Roloff, CEO of Spokane’s Volunteers of America, a nonprofit that works with homeless and low-income children and teenagers.

Murphy said service agencies reach only about 20 percent to 25 percent of the children who need assistance.

“When you have to wait for 75 percent of these children to get worse, it won’t work,” Murphy said.

Last fall, Spokane voters passed a mental-health sales tax to pay for local programs after a cut in federal funding. The 0.1 percent sales tax generates $6.5 million annually.

But voters’ approval came only after it was clear that the local mental-health system was on the brink of insolvency, and after county leaders cut $500,000 a month from its budget.

Bob Watt, Boeing’s vice president for government relations and global corporate citizenship, told Inland Northwest community leaders earlier this month that investing in early childhood programs would pay dividends in decreased jail and welfare costs, and increase outcomes for poor children.

In 2005, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that spending on early childhood programs resulted in annual rates of return between 7 percent and 16 percent. The bank’s analysis compared a group of economic development options including tax abatement programs, sports stadiums and early childhood learning.

“Guess which one year after year after year returned the greatest value to the communities that made the investment?” Watt said in his speech, the capstone event of the Our Kids: Our Business campaign. “It was early learning.”

Community action

With or without funding, local officials said they have been encouraged by the response of more than 1,700 citizens who signed the Call to Action in support of children.

Connie Lambert-Eckle, a deputy regional supervisor with the Department of Social and Health Services, said it is important for social service agencies and nonprofits to help volunteers connect with meaningful experiences.

“It’s a big city,” Lambert-Eckle said. “I think the citizens get lost once they get out of their neighborhood block. I think people really do care.”

In order to enact positive change, United Way’s Marich said, Spokane must continue to raise awareness in neighborhoods and across the city.

“We need to have a community vision,” Marich said. “This is a wonderful place to raise kids. How do we make sure that it remains that way?”

In the aftermath of the death of 4-year-old Summer Phelps, several local agencies instituted changes as well. Spokane police assigned two detectives to focus on physical abuse cases. Spokane businesses and public agencies started Project Safe Place, which provides temporary shelter for endangered children. Partners with Families and Children launched a program to train adults to recognize the signs of abuse and neglect and teach them how to help at-risk children.

Other changes were less tangible.

On a Sunday earlier this month, two sisters read the story of an adult male survivor of child sexual abuse and were moved to action. For years, the sisters had suffered abuse in silence. But the publication of the story of Bob Ricks, a 24-year-old foster parent who alleges his father sexually abused him, deeply affected them.

“We decided for the first time in 42 years to go to a counselor,” said the 51-year-old woman, who asked that her identity not be disclosed. “We thought, ‘If he can talk about it in public, we can at least go to counseling.’ “