Perhaps you heard the story of little Eli Johnson, and maybe it got to you, too. In my home state of Oklahoma, 3-year-old Eli lost his life when the adults responsible for his care lost their temper.
He is one of about 1,700 American children who died last year of child abuse or neglect. Every sixth child in that statistic was from Texas, which had its highest number of child abuse fatalities on record last year. That's especially disheartening, considering that child abuse rates overall are falling. Yet these, the most tragic of cases, continue to climb year after year.
Eli's beating death happened, according to a National Public Radio report, on one level, because the state missed a warning from Eli's grandmother that he was being abused. Oklahoma's child welfare resources were dwindling with the recession. Those resources—for child protective services caseworkers, prevention programs, and more—have a very real impact on child safety.
I keep thinking, though, about what triggered Eli's death, according to the police who talked to his mother and her boyfriend, both of whom now await trial for murder. They said it all happened after Eli wet his pants. This, as NPR's Pam Fessler noted, is what 3-year-olds do. The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that more child abuse occurs during toilet training than at any other developmental stage. Many adults just misunderstand children's lack of ability or self-control as some form of defiance.
Whether physical, emotional, or sexual, a lot of child abuse, in fact, boils down to violence targeted at another human for something as unchangeable as who he or she is. Children's vulnerability and dependence, their trust in grown-ups, the differences in their bodies and ways of thinking—all the traits ingrained in childhood are the very ones abusers exploit, rage at, and soil.
Protecting future Elis is possible, though. What saves lives is being there for children whose caregivers pose a danger before tragedy strikes. That's what happens in states like Kansas and North Dakota, Massachusetts and Washington, places all over the country where children are seven times less likely to die from child abuse than our Texas kids. We can follow their lead, and do what works to keep kids safe.
1. We won't always know who is capable of abusing their children, but neither should we ignore red flags. Look at how all the states with the highest rates of child abuse fatalities on this map:
…also show up as states with some of the lowest per-capita spending on mental health and substance abuse treatment on this map
(click on the links for full-size maps):
Since certain untreated mental illnesses and substance abuse problems in parents can make them a danger to their children, let's adequately fund programs that address underlying causes of abuse before violence ever occurs.
2. Let's also expand our investments in proven prevention strategies. States with more resources dedicated to prevention programs see a significant positive impact on children's lives saved, the Center for Public Policy Priorities reports
. Effective parent education and support programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership
dramatically cut the lifetime risk of child abuse in at-risk households. Children in the program face half
the child abuse risk of their peers in similar homes.
Bringing down the caseloads of child protective services workers and turnover rates so they can do their jobs; reducing poverty levels and the teen birth rate (both of which contribute to household strain and higher abuse rates); creating a climate where children are encouraged to speak out about abuse—these are just a few ways we Texans can be there for the kids who need us most. We can
keep the next child victim safe. First, though, we must come together and act