Why Child Abuse Is at 10-Year Low ; Recent Improvement Is Linked to the Strong Economy and Programs Targeting Prevention

Article excerpt

Four preschoolers push their bulging bean-bag chairs into a circle and sit down to read.

With one glance, it's clear that they come from different homes, different backgrounds, different worlds. Yet they've all come to this spare, quiet room on the west side of Los Angeles for the same reason: They're considered "at risk" of being abused or neglected.

The reasons can vary widely - from having parents who were victims of abuse themselves to simply coming from low-income households. While each of these kids fits that profile in one way or another, their presence here is a sign of hope.

That's because they're here in an effort to stop abuse before it starts.

Programs like this have played a key role in bringing the rate of child abuse and neglect to its lowest ebb in 10 years, experts say.

Moreover, their success reflects a deeper change in American culture, as society becomes less tolerant of violence against children - whether it be spanking to enforce discipline or striking out in anger. These shifting societal mores, coupled with money from the soaring economy, have created new momentum in the nation's fight against child abuse.

"From my perspective, the coast-to-coast network of child welfare has reached a point that is more hopeful for kids than ever," says Michael Kharfen, communications director for the US Department of Health and Human Services, which released new statistics last month.

Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that cases of neglected and abused children fell for the fifth straight year in 1998.

Many factors have contributed to the drop. For one, the decline in the number of people on welfare and record-low unemployment have had an impact, as have strides made in combating substance abuse. There has also been growth in the number of programs aimed at prevention, from teen pregnancy to those created for "at risk" kids.

Still, the current statistical decline is modest, many observers note. In 1998, about 903,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment, down 11 percent from a 10-year high of 1.02 million in 1993. Yet the 1998 figure is still higher than numbers from 1990, in which 877,000 cases were reported.

"It is wonderful that these numbers are declining, but the remaining statistics are still way too high," says Steven Ambrose, vice president of programs for Children's Institute International, which offers child-assistance services. "And there remains a tremendous amount of unreported abuse, although the decline is probably connected to those numbers as well."

Rise of neglect

In the decade reflected by these statistics, nearly 1 in 4 of the reported cases concerned physical abuse. But that ratio is shrinking, with more children becoming victims of neglect, which includes problems such as emotional deprivation, diminished educational opportunity, and inadequate nourishment.

"Abuse is more noticeable as a bruise or broken arm, but we also have to think of neglect as abusive," says Anita Bach, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. "In a way, this is harder because we have to focus on so many other intangibles that have to do with quality of life."

But she and others say the signs are positive. …