The recent Guest Opinion about Baby Caiden (“Still work to be done in case of Baby Caiden,” Mary Ann Murphy, Aug. 15) was a disturbing example of how child abuse and neglect in all its forms is an all-too-common problem, both nationally and locally. A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families reported states’ Child Protective Services cases increased in 2017 (most recent data available) to more than 3.5 million, or almost seven cases a minute. More than one-third of American children are referred to CPS before their 18th birthday. In 2017, there were over 6,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in Spokane County. The rate in the city of Spokane was nearly three times that of the state while the county’s overall rate was about 50 percent higher.
Children of color are disproportionately represented at every level within the child protection system, from referrals to out-of-home placements, suggesting long-standing institutional and societal biases. Among all races, children with special needs and those that are under the age of 3 are at an increased risk for suffering abuse and neglect, with infants under the age of 1 especially vulnerable.
Instances of neglect and abuse are considered adverse childhood experiences, which can be life-altering – both in the short- and long-term. Beyond childhood, those with more adverse childhood experiences are at increased risk for suicide, depression and other mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse, teen pregnancy, lower educational attainment and employment challenges. They will be more likely to have chronic medical problems, like obesity/disordered eating and heart disease.
Sleepless nights, mounting bills, lack of affordable, quality child care opportunities, social isolation and a screaming baby are not a good combination. Parents are often forced to make decisions between bad and worse when it comes to meeting the needs of their family. The days and weeks after birth are a critical time for attachment and bonding – babies are wired for connection. Unfortunately, our society is not.
We need to ask ourselves: “What is our commitment to Spokane’s children?” Does every child deserve safe, stable housing? Does every child deserve a safe place to grow and learn? How can we create a community where families flourish and all children have enriching opportunities? One path forward would be to establish policies and systems that value children. One such policy will be implemented in Washington state in January of 2020: paid family and medical leave. This will allow Washington families time to enjoy and connect with their new infant while partially alleviating monetary stress, a combination that will likely reduce child abuse and neglect.
Quality, affordable, flexible child care options either do not exist or are out of reach for the majority of Spokane’s children. Child care centers are being forced to close their doors, due to lack of government financial support, increased regulations and the high cost of doing business as independent entities, further limiting child care options. Families are having to rely on people they may not know well or trust to care for their children. This informal system leaves children vulnerable. In fact, that is what happened to Caiden Henry. He was left with a close friend’s husband while his mom went to work – his death was preventable. Unfortunately, Caiden is not the only casualty in our child care crisis.
There is a traditional greeting among the Masai warriors in Africa, “Caesarian Negeri,” which means “And how are the children?” If the children are well, it can be assumed all is well. This should be Spokane’s benchmark for success. When every child in Spokane has their basic needs met, is loved beyond measure, valued and protected, our economy will thrive.
We’re fortunate to have many great organizations and programs serving our most vulnerable community members. Yet, given our data, these resources could use bolstering. How do we move forward with a community agenda that puts the wellness of children at the forefront?
Family violence was identified as Spokane’s greatest priority through a 2018 community health assessment. Currently, the Spokane Regional Health District and several other organizations are evaluating existing programs and looking at innovative and evidence-based practices to determine a more effective path forward. Increasing our community’s “protective factors” and recognizing we all have a role to play – it’s our collective responsibility and in our own best interest to keep kids in our community safe – is essential. Parents and children need support. What can you do to support the children in our community?
Jennifer Hansen is a health program specialist for the Spokane Regional Health District. Ashley Beck is a senior research scientist for the Spokane Regional Health District. Sheila Masteller is the Community and Family Services director for the Spokane Regional Health District.
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