As we observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April — and especially Childhood Exposure to Violence Week this week — I am particularly mindful of the lifelong cost of child abuse.
In 2012, researchers released a landmark study about the dollars-and-cents cost of child abuse, revealing that the average nonfatal case of child maltreatment costs society more than $200,000: a cost which rivals other public health concerns such as stroke, $160,000 per case, or Type 2 diabetes, $180,000 per case.
Some of this cost is paid by our taxes: physical and emotional health care, court and welfare costs are all fairly direct, making up about $65,000 of the costs of each case. Shockingly, the largest cost — almost $150,000 over the child’s lifetime — is from lost productivity. Such loss is the foreseeable result of the trauma and dislocation suffered by every child-victim due to diminished educational capacities and opportunities, lifelong physical and emotional difficulties and the tragically repeating cycle of abuse and victimization.
Looking through the lens offered by this report (and understanding that our costs are likely somewhat below the national average), the 40-plus cases of childhood maltreatment heard in the Hill County courts last year take on a new light. The direct costs incurred by taxpayers will eventually total $2–3 million, while projected productivity declines could mean a countywide net loss of an additional $6 million, with a total lifetime cost to Hill County of $9 million. Granted, these costs will be spread out over perhaps 50-60 years, but more cases enter the system every year. How many of our neighbors are survivors of childhood abuse or neglect? Hundreds? With every 40 cases representing up to $100,000 of lost economic opportunity every year, we could be losing more than $1 million every year, not counting the direct costs. Even discounting these numbers substantially, we are left with a radically altered image of the impact of child abuse.
As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, I am keenly aware of the human costs of abuse and neglect. In my work, the dollars and cents simply do not register. What matters to me is doing all I can to minimize the trauma suffered by the child, and to find a safe, permanent home as rapidly as possible. My fellow CASAs and all of our professional partners work tirelessly to mitigate the trauma these children experience, and hopefully to improve the rest of their lives, not because of any financial stake, but because every child deserves a safe, nurturing, permanent home.
Yet, these statistics remind us that there is a societal cost for child abuse and neglect: A cost we all bear. And that cost rises arithmetically, recognizing that child victims often grow up to be adult abusers. While the statistics do not condemn any child, we ought not to dismiss the statistics lightly. Why isn’t child abuse and neglect considered when political discourse turns to economic improvement or public health?
Of course the pivotal question is, “How can we make a difference?”
As mentioned, the professional community is stridently seeking an elusive silver bullet which will allow us to prevent abuse, even as it is burdened with serving the children and families which have suffered abuse. Unfortunately, often average folks are locked out of those efforts. Still, there is much everyone in Hill County can do.
Of course, I invite everyone in Hill County to consider becoming a CASA. CASA is a way for all of us ‘average’ folks to serve kids who have been abuse or neglected. We are teachers, administrators, railroad workers, nurses and retirees who volunteer our time to speak out for the best interests of the children we represent. Following 30 hours of pre-service training, we spend 5-10 hours each month investigating, mentoring, monitoring and advocating for our children. As CASAs, we are uniquely positioned to help break the cycle of violence, abuse and victimization … and ultimately not only to improve lives, but to mitigate the communal losses outlined in that groundbreaking report.
Although not everyone can become a CASA, we all can be more engaged with our families, both immediate and extended, with our neighbors, with our friends and with our community at-large. We must unlearn the negative aspects of our shared pioneer spirit which tells us, “That’s someone else’s business.” Like it or not, the system is reactive: It only engages after something happens. Still, in the vast majority of cases, the children are returned to their homes. Not only is this the most desirable outcome, causing the least trauma for the child, but it also indicates that the initial problem was a lack of skills, not a lack of love. With only a very few exceptions, parents want to raise their children in safe, nurturing homes. If we can get past the someone-else’s-problem barrier, we can be more than monitors; we can become resources one to another, providing mentoring to new parents, respite for troubled parents, or even just a kind word to struggling parents.
Always report suspected abuse or neglect to Montana Centralized Intake at 866-820-KIDS (5437).
I realize that this is an over-optimistic proposition, but whether counting the human cost of a child’s trauma or the societal cost of millions of dollars in lost economic opportunity and productivity, do we really have an option?
(Mark Douglass is director of operations for CASA of Hill County.)