As recession forces budget cuts, abused and neglected children face even greater risks

Lately it seems as though hardly a day goes by without a new report about the increasingly heavy toll the recession is taking on children nationwide.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported anecdotal data suggesting that incidents of family violence may be on the rise. Yesterday Reuters wrote about drastic upswings in child abuse cases reported by hospitals in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere. In New Jersey, calls to the state child welfare hotline increased by more than 1,000 between February and March. Substantiated reports of child maltreatment have risen in Michigan. The list goes on.

And just as more and more fragile families appear to be cracking under the pressure of their mounting financial burdens, more and more states are responding to their own budget shortfalls by cutting back on critical services — including the child welfare programs responsible for protecting and caring for children when they suffer abuse and neglect.

An astonishing report by Erik Eckholm in last Sunday’s New York Times noted that in Ohio — where abuse and neglect reports have surged past 100,000 for the first time in the state’s history — some counties stand to lose as many as 75 percent of their child protective services investigators due to budget cuts. Arizona, which carries one of the nation’s highest budget deficits, has simply stopped investigating some reports of abuse and neglect — while simultaneously reducing counseling for families at risk of violence.

In an economic crisis as severe as the current one, some cutbacks are inevitable. But because children — especially those dependent on public child welfare systems — lack the political influence necessary to defend their interests as difficult fiscal decisions are debated, child welfare programs too often absorb more than their fair share of the impact.

There are, however, some places where Children’s Rights has succeeded at softening the blow. In Michigan and New Jersey — as well as Connecticut, Mississippi, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia — the federal court orders we have secured to mandate the reform of their dysfunctional child welfare systems have also ensured that children’s services remain a fiscal priority even in times of economic distress. In Wisconsin, where we recently negotiated a new, court-enforceable plan to revitalize ongoing reforms to the Milwaukee child welfare system, the governor actually proposed an increase in this year’s budget for key child welfare programs.

It seems clear that the recession is going to continue to deepen, and that the pressures on state budgets will only continue to grow. While no public programs can be expected to emerge from the current crisis completely unscathed, Children’s Rights remains committed to ensuring that the interests of the abused and neglected children we represent are not simply swept aside — and that the child welfare agencies responsible for their protection are not starved of the resources they need to provide it.