Today’s Michigan Prevention Awareness Day rally at the Capitol holds special meaning for me this year. After years of writing about children who had been abused or neglected, and then about needed policy reforms, my husband and I last year decided to dive into the trenches. We wanted to make a difference in another way, even if in the life of only one child. So we became foster parents.
After taking all the classes, converting my home office into a nursery, passing background checks and physicals, and completing a million forms, we were licensed in April 2014. Our first call came in June to take in not one, but two babies who had been severely neglected. The twin girls were 3 months old but weighed only four pounds each – the same they weighed when their parents took them home from the hospital at three weeks old. But then, they didn’t feed them enough.
Doctors and nurses at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital said it was the worst case of child starvation they had ever seen. The girls’ eyes bulged from heads twice the size of their bone-thin bodies. Their skin hung. Even the preemie diapers slipped where they had no bottoms to hold them up.
After proving that I could correctly mix formula and promising to feed them every two to three hours around-the-clock, the babies were released into my care. My husband and I, along with our 6-year-old daughter, spent the next six weeks fattening the babies. When they left for a new foster home closer to their parents, they each weighed in at 10 pounds. They were exactly what you would expect from 5-month-old babies: fat, happy and giggling.
We had accomplished our goal by making a difference in their lives and are now on to a new child. And yet, there are so many more children who need help.
There were 33,807 confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect in Michigan in 2013. Those are actual children, not just numbers. That’s enough to fill 1,300 classrooms with 26 students in each. And the number of confirmed victims has increased in each of the past eight years. The rate of confirmed victims rose by almost one-third between 2006 and 2013, according to Kids Count in Michigan, from 11.4 victims per 1,000 kids to 14.9 victims per 1,000. Nearly one in every 10 children lives in a household investigated for abuse and neglect.
Meanwhile, funding for prevention services has been cut from $57 million in 2006 to $42 million in 2014. These services are provided at the community-level with crisis intervention, family education, and more. They prevent out-of-home placements and help families learn coping and parenting skills. Budget year 2014 data for Families First Michigan, which served 2,381 families at imminent risk for having at least one child removed due to abuse or neglect, shows that 75% of these families avoided removal in the 12 months after completing the program. Nearly 90% of those continued to avoid Child Protective Services involvement in the following year.
Poverty and neglect are tightly interwoven, and compounding the situation are the cuts our Legislature and governor have made to other programs that are critical to struggling families, including food assistance, cash assistance, the child care subsidy and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
It is clear that these services protect children from abuse and neglect, and yet we cut them. It’s no surprise then that the rate of abuse and neglect is rising.
Maltreatment has life-long effects. Children who are abused or neglected face increased risks of developmental delays, mental health and substance abuse problems, criminal behavior, job loss and early death. They also are more likely to become a perpetrator of maltreatment with their own children.
If Michigan truly cares about giving kids the best shot at life then we must do more to prevent child abuse and neglect. April as Child Abuse Prevention Month is an opportune time to renew this commitment. Policymakers and advocates today will celebrate the seventh annual Michigan Prevention Awareness Day with a rally at the Capitol and planting blue pinwheels on the lawn to show support for prevention programs. A real sign of support would be more funding for prevention programs that are proven to keep kids safe and their families together.
The twins’ parents continue to make progress and hope to get their girls back soon. Despite their mistakes, they truly cared and wanted to do their best for their girls – their first and only children –but they didn’t know how. They were overwhelmed and stressed and suffered other issues as well. They needed help and support. Perhaps that help could have come from these prevention programs and their girls would not have suffered and their family might not have been in turmoil the past year.
– Stacey Range Messina