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Child Abuse: Problems & Solutions

Douglass Gaking
July 12, 2006

Child abuse is a crisis in America and a growing crisis worldwide. The reasons for this are that media-supported myths rule the public image of child abuse, while the support networks of extended family and close friends are shrinking significantly for the average American.

According to the American Journalism Review (Vol. 19, September 1997), journalists have a “fixation . . . on fatal child abuse cases, which are both inherently dramatic and easier to cover.” Stories lack the context of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, neighborhood crime and unemployment. According to Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, coverage focuses “disproportionately on cases of exceptional brutality or exceptional incompetence,” neglecting to educate the public on the conditions of vulnerable families. Fatal cases, which get the most attention, make up less than one percent of neglect and abuse cases.

The problem is that the media, in attempt to develop good stories, develops moral outrage, but does not always provide coverage that is informative and preventive. Judith Goodhand of Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, said that

Outrage is cheap. Like other things that are cheap, it can attract an awful lot of attention. But it doesn't result in the sustained efforts that are needed to protect children. And at its very worst, it can derail some of our most significant reforms.

The media’s attention does more to frighten child protection agencies than abusers from negative attention. It is also pessimistic, focusing almost entirely on failures over successes. While this American Journalism Review article was released in 1997 and annual conferences have covered the issue, these same attitudes are still seen in the media nearly nine years later, especially at the local level.

Another serious problem connected to the child abuse crisis is a lack of support systems for parents. A study on social isolation covered in The Washington Post (June 23, 2006) showed that “a quarter of Americans say they have no one with whoem they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. The number of close “confidants” that Americans have has dropped from around three to two over a generation. Also, according to Robert S. Feldman’s Child Development (page 225),

The average size of families is shrinking. Today, on average, there are 2.6 persons per household, compared to 2.8 in 1980. The number of people living in nonfamily households (without any relatives) is close to 30 million.

This is a problem with no simple solution. It is customary today to travel hours from home to go to college, and then not to return home when entering the job world. The extended family is more distant now than ever before, and circles of friends are challenging to maintain as people travel more than ever.

One solution that has proved effective is Vermont’s Success by Six program. The program “offers home visits for every family with a newborn or a newly adopted child.” (article by Kathleen Sylvester in The Future of Children, Vol. 11, 2001) Each family gets a bag of items such as diapers, books and toys, delivered by a member of the local community. “Home visitors focus on making parents feel at ease, answering questions related to child development, and making referrals to other community services.” It is considered one of the reasons that child abuse has decreased by 49% in Vermont from 1990 to 1998.

To prevent child abuse in America, the media should report on it more responsibly, informatively, and positively. Communities should reach out to help parents of newborns and newly adopted children get a comfortable start and have a place to go for support. Individual citizens should examine their support systems and consider contacting old friends and family, or exploring opportunities to make new friends, so that they have confidents to go to in troubling times.

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