Sat, Apr 18, 2009 - Page 9 News List

One unwanted trickle-down effect: child abuse and murder

When the economy suffers, the most spectacular victims tend to be big business and the banks. But in the suburbs, dwindling income increases child abuse rates

By Jason Szep  /  REUTERS , BOSTON

One four-month-old baby was shaken so violently she needed surgery. Another three-week-old suffered fractured ribs from abuse at home. A nine-year-old diabetic boy stopped receiving proper treatment for his condition.

Those cases reported by Boston hospitals are part of a spike in child abuse in the US during a recession that has driven some families to the brink and overwhelmed cash-strapped child-protection agencies.

“In the last three months we have twice as many severe inflicted injury cases as we did in the three months the previous year,” said Allison Scobie, program director of the Child Protection Team at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

Typically, her hospital handles about 1,500 such cases a year. That rose to 1,800 last year.

“We’re finding that it is directly attributable to what is happening economically,” she said. “Many of the hospitals around here report an increase of 20 to 30 percent of requests for consultation regarding suspected child maltreatment.”

Many cases bear the imprint of economic troubles, like the nine-year-old diabetic boy hospitalized after his mother, a single parent, could no longer afford insurance co-payments needed to treat his disease. She left him home alone for long stretches on days when he required medical attention.

“She had difficulty with the bare bone things that would keep this child healthy,” Scobie said

Similar stories have surfaced in other regions, according to anecdotal and official reports. The Illinois department of child and family services, for example, reported a 5.8 percent rise in child abuse cases in the state last year. In the Chicago area, child abuse cases rose more than 9 percent last year.

Child abuse cases in Ohio, a state hit hard by the recession, topped 100,000 for the first time in 2007 and have continued to rise, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a nonprofit association of agencies charged with child protection.

“Many of our county agency directors tell us their child abuse reports have risen,” said the group’s director, Crystal Ward Allen, whose agency relies heavily on local revenue drawn from property taxes, which have collapsed in the recession.

“Our basic safety net is really faltering,” she said.

Most recent federal data show child abuse declined in the US in 2007 to a rate of 10.6 percent — of a total 71 million children — from 12.1 percent in 2006.

But some see that changing dramatically. A poll last month by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research showed that 88 percent of 607 sheriffs, district attorneys and chiefs of police nationwide expect a rise in child maltreatment. They based their views largely on similar rises in past recessions.

Many doctors agree. Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and the Harborview Medical Center are seeing more children suffering subdural bleeding caused by blows to the head from abuse. In a typical year, they treat about one such child a month. Last year, they admitted nearly three times as many — or 32 children.

“We have been pretty busy again this year,” said Kenneth Feldman, medical director of the Children’s Protection Program at the Children’s Hospital. “The vast majority are from families who are struggling financially.”

A flurry of similar cases startled doctors late last year in Syracuse, New York.

“I was just shocked,” said Ann Botash, who heads the Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation Program at State University of New York in Syracuse, a city of about 147,300 people.

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