EVERY year, the federal agency that tracks child welfare statistics releases its statistical findings. And every year, the findings generate feelings of deep conflict.
This year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families reported the number of child abuse and neglect incidents in 2011 fell for the fifth straight year.
That's wonderful news. Fewer children subjected to abuse and neglect is something to celebrate. But such celebratory feelings always meet with sobering reality.
“We have made excellent progress over the past five years,” said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary of ACF. “But what this report tells me is that we still have 681,000 children out there who need our help.”
Some of the statistics in the report:
The number of abuse-related fatalities was estimated at 1,570. That's down significantly from 1,720 in 2007 and slightly from 1,580 in 2010.
82 percent of those killed were younger than 4. The child fatality rate was higher for boys.
White children accounted for almost 41 percent of the fatality victims, black children for 28 percent and Hispanic children for 18 percent.
One or more parents caused 78 percent of the fatalities. Women were the most likely perpetrators in all abuse and neglect cases.
Child welfare agencies nationwide handled an estimated 3.4 million referrals alleging child maltreatment.
In Oklahoma, the report found 7,836 child victims in 2011 — about 8 percent of the state's child population. Infants were the most likely to suffer neglect and abuse. Our state's rate of 4.06 deaths per 100,000 children was second only to West Virginia (4.16).
Of the states that reported whether victimized children were exposed to drug abuse, Oklahoma's rate (38 percent) was lower only than New Mexico (55.8 percent), Washington (41.6 percent) and Wyoming (33.7 percent).
Oklahoma's struggles with child welfare are well documented. It's fair to say last month's statewide vote to change oversight of the state Department of Human Services was due in no small part to voter frustration and heartbreak over the steady stream of outrageous child neglect and abuse cases where the agency already had or should have had involvement.
Clearly, Oklahoma isn't the only state deeply struggling with creating and nurturing safer environments for children, but that's of little consolation.
As Sheldon necessarily points out, behind each of the statistics is a child whose life will forever be altered — often by the very adults charged with their care.
We wish this was one of those occasions to offer an obvious and simple fix or to point a single finger of accountability. It isn't.
Drugs, poverty, crime and unemployment are factors. So, too, is the disintegration of the family as we once knew it. Child welfare officials can always do a better job protecting children they know are at risk. But isn't that true of us all?
We should celebrate progress. But this much is also certain: Neither parents nor other caregivers nor child welfare officials are always going to do the right thing. Stories of abuse and neglect should always produce outrage, heartbreak, urgent calls for action and even political posturing. If they don't, then we'll have an even bigger reason to worry.