There were 94 deaths during the fiscal year ended June 30 that involved “credible evidence” of abuse or neglect, according to a report by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services. A cause has yet to be established for 45 of the 223 deaths investigated, but it is anticipated official determinations will push that number above the previous high of 102, which occurred in 1989.
Sixty percent of those killed by abuse or neglect are 6 months old or younger. An estimated one in five Illinois children are abused to some degree.
Fatal beatings and deaths resulting from a lack of supervision — such as through drowning — are a portion of the deaths, but most common are cases of suffocation during sleep. These involve blankets or other objects or being inadvertently smothered because they are sleeping with a parent.
When faced with such heart-breaking details, it’s human nature to look for a scapegoat. It somehow eases the soul to place blame, and DCFS has been an unfortunate lightning rod for much of that. But three of every four abuse deaths occur in households that had no previous contact with Illinois Department of Children & Family Services officials. The over-pressed, under-funded state agency gets the grim task of investigating such deaths and as a result is often saddled with the guilt.
Instead of assigning blame, we need to target the problem.
It’s clear that education and public awareness is much greater to child abuse than ever before. Once-acceptable forms of discipline such as spanking are now widely discouraged, despite comments such as “my parents spanked me and I turned out all right.”
But there is work that must be done. Too often, we have only once to save a child from the hands of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
It starts with families.
“Just as immunizations shield children, families and communities from influenza and other disease, research shows that child abuse and neglect can be reduced by promoting six protective factors that make sure every family is safe, secure, and has the support needed to raise their children in a healthy environment,” according to DCFS.
Those include promoting nurturing bonds between children, parents and caregivers; ensuring effective, appropriate and researched-based child discipline; strengthening parental resilience to stress; developing emotional and social skills in children; supporting parenting through social connections to friends and family; and connecting families to community resources.
It is important communities take a partnership role in combating the issue, too. Everyone from school, church and law enforcement officials down to individuals must be willing to notice warning signs of abuse and be willing to act.
The state has a hotline available to report suspected abuse or neglect — 1-800-252-2873 — and that has kept thousands of children safe over the years. The Department of Children & Family Services deserves credit for that effort, investigating a report of abuse every five minutes.
Yet it can only do so much, and it is estimated 80 percent of abuse and neglect cases are never reported.
Don’t allow it to continue.
Silence can be deadly.