The level of violence aimed at young children in this country has reached public health crisis proportions, annually claiming the lives of at least 2,000 children and seriously injuring upward of 140,000 others, a federal advisory panel declared in a report scheduled to be released today to Congress.
The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, concluding a 2 1/2 -year nationwide study that included public hearings in 10 states, found a level of fatal abuse and neglect far greater than even experts in the field had realized.
Abuse and neglect in the home is a leading cause of death for young children in this country, outstripping deaths caused by accidental falls, choking on food, suffocation, drowning or residential fires, the report found.
The vast majority of abused and neglected children are under 4 years old. In fact, the homicide rate among children in this age group has hit a 40-year high, a chilling trend similar in scope to the violence directed at teen-agers from street gunfire, according to the report.
But as grim as the enumerations of violent acts is the report's finding that the child protective system has largely failed to shelter the nation's children.
The report describes an alarming national environment of under-reported child abuse fatalities; inadequately trained investigators, prosecutors and medical professionals; inconsistent autopsy practices; and a public that continues to regard child deaths as "rare curiosities."
"When it comes to deaths of infants and small children ... at the hands of parents or caretakers, society has responded in a strangely muffled, seemingly disinterested way," stated the panel, composed of experts on child abuse and chaired by Deanne Tilton Durfee, executive director of the Los Angeles County Interagency Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.
"Little money has been spent to understand this tragic phenomenon. The true numbers and exact nature of the problem remain unknown and the troubling fact of abuse or neglect often remains a terrible secret that is buried with the child."
The 15-member panel was established by Congress in 1988 to evaluate the scope of child abuse and recommend ways to improve the protective system.
The panel said in today's report, "A Nation's Shame: Fatal Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States," that it found that most physical abuse fatalities are caused by fathers, stepfathers or boyfriends who unleash a torrent of rage on infants over such "triggers" as a baby's crying, feeding difficulties or failed toilet training.
Likewise, studies now suggest that mothers are most often held responsible for deaths resulting from bathtub drownings, starvation or other neglect.