Shame on Maryland for neglecting the neglected

It took me 20 years, after moving here, to say "Maryland" when people asked me where I was from. I was a proud New Yorker, with a long and hard adjustment to life in the Maryland suburbs. But I stayed — long enough to become a "former New Yorker," long enough to call Maryland my permanent home.

Today, I am ashamed to be a Marylander.

Gov. Martin O'Malley proudly includes on his legislative agenda an item to criminalize child neglect. Bravo, Martin O'Malley, many will say. Indeed, every state should, in fact must, have such a statute. But according to the National District Attorneys Association, "All states have some form of statute criminalizing the underlying facets of neglect and abandonment, except the state of Maryland."

I listened, incredulous, to the radio as this item made too brief a blip on the news. For me, this news hits too close to home, and no matter how many years pass, the issue is raw and the wounds are deep.

As the most affluent state, based on median income, we cannot afford to stereotype neglect as an affliction of "those people" — the poor, the uneducated, alcoholics, drug abusers, immigrants — and not a problem concerning mainstream America. It is a problem of mainstream America. A problem concerning any child in America is the problem of all of America. Society still suffers an inability to protect its children and a complacency that overlooks neglect in every reach of the community, whether that is in a family on public assistance, or in the girl next door — the one with piano lessons and the beautiful hand-embroidered lavender gingham dress.

Perhaps, if such legislation existed in New York back in 1970, things would have been different for this long-ago child. Perhaps a teacher would have questioned how a straight-A student could suddenly show up at school with a haphazardly wrapped Ace bandage around her wrist, failing to complete her homework and tests, claiming to be unable to write because of her "broken wrist." And if such questioning could have led to the implication of neglect on the part of the mother, the child would not have faced continued refusal of medical attention for subsequent injuries, such as a displaced kneecap. But instead, the teacher said, "Lauren, if your wrist was broken, your mother would surely have sent in a doctor's note." Back then, a teacher didn't question the integrity of the parent, especially a parent active in the PTA.

Four years later, neglect — as part of the larger issue of abuse — garnered national attention, although the stereotypes remained, and still do today. Let's assume that many neglected children are from underprivileged families, or families suffering from poor choices on the part of the parents. Does this make the child deserve such a fate? Does it entitle us to say it's not our concern?

At age 52, I am no longer a child of neglect. But here it is, 37 years after Congress established the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect via the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, covering four categories of child maltreatment — physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and child neglect including medical neglect — and still Maryland has not advanced beyond the tsk-tsk stage. Is there any way to describe that other than appalling?

Lauren Eisenberg Davis is coordinator Maryland Writers' Association Nonfiction Group. Her e-mail is autumnleaves1997@gmail.com.

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