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MADISON — April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time for all of us to consider how we contribute to the emotional and physical well-being of our children. Since becoming Attorney General, protecting children has been a cornerstone of our work at the Department of Justice (DOJ) because I believe we have no higher calling than to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Child maltreatment is generally broken up into three categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. While we mostly hear stories about physical and sexual abuse, child neglect is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment in the United States. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reports that, of the approximately 899,000 children in the U.S. who were victims of abuse and neglect in 2005, 62.8 percent suffered from neglect alone. More disturbing, 42.2 percent of child maltreatment fatalities in the U.S. occurred as a result of neglect.
When we speak of child neglect, we are talking about more than occasional, careless parenting. In this context, “neglect” refers to maltreatment committed by a caregiver who fails, for reasons other than poverty, to provide necessary care, food, clothing, medical or dental care, or shelter, so as to seriously endanger the physical health of a child. Neglect impacts children in a myriad of ways including their health, physical development, cognitive development, emotional growth, psychological development, social interactions, and behavioral development.
Recently, we have learned about the importance of childhood experiences and how they affect how we see ourselves and the world around us. When we have positive experiences in childhood, we are far more likely to lead healthy and productive lives as adults. Unfortunately, negative childhood experiences have proven to lead to increased mental and physical health issues and lower socioeconomic status in adulthood.
Society pays an enormous price for child neglect. The monetary costs for maintaining social services systems, criminal justice systems, special education programs, medical and mental health systems are staggering. Indirect consequences include increased juvenile delinquency, criminal involvement, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
Child neglect and the harm it causes can be decreased or mitigated through prevention and intervention programs. However, before that can happen, we all must be vigilant in recognizing child neglect and reporting it to law enforcement.
Here at the DOJ, we are committed to educating the professionals who combat child neglect. To that end, we are co-sponsoring a conference in May called “Death by Child Neglect: A Global Perspective for Multidisciplinary Teams,” through a grant under the Children’s Justice Act. The conference is designed for prosecutors, victim/witness professionals, health care advocates and others, but as I said earlier, it’s up to all of us to ensure the children around us get the support needed for the chance at a safe, healthy and happy future. Our children are counting on us. Please join me in being there for them.