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Editorial: Report reinforces need to work harder at protecting children

Dec. 16, 2012 @ 11:15 PM

Combating child abuse is a tricky proposition.

Too often, it's not known what goes on inside a household and whether children are abused behind the closed doors. Or whether the abuse is physical in nature, a matter of neglect, or of the psychological variety.

What is clear is that reducing the amount of suffering children experience at the hands of adults is a never-ending battle that warrants the fullest attention of all of us, but particularly those with the authority to do something about it.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that reported cases of child abuse and neglect dropped nationwide for the fifth consecutive year. The decline wasn't much -- about 2 percent -- but the number was headed in a positive direction.

However, as officials noted, the total cases reported last year, 681,000, means that there are still hundreds of thousands of children across the nation who need help. A further breakdown of the numbers by state indicates that West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio have plenty of work to do.

The federal agency's annual report showed that West Virginia had the nation's highest rate of child fatalities in 2011, at 4.16 per 100,000 children in the state. Sixteen children were reported to have died from abuse, double the number of fatalities in 2010 in the Mountain State. Kentucky had the seventh highest rate, while Ohio's was 15th highest.

In terms of total cases of abuse -- or "maltreatment" -- Kentucky had the third highest rate in the country, with more than 16 of every 100,000 children in that state a victim. Ohio's abuse rate was 16th highest, while West Virginia's was 19th highest.

Based on various cases that have been in the news in recent years, it's not hard to imagine where part of the problem is derived. All too often, police making drug arrests report that small children are present in the home -- sometimes with the adults so incapacitated from drug use that they clearly were not fit to look after the little ones. That's the anecdotal evidence. It's well-known that all three states have high rates of prescription drug abuse among their populations, and it's no stretch to think that those habits render many parents unsuitable to care for their children.

Another potential factor could be higher levels of poverty, particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Experts note that lower-income households struggling with financial difficulties are more prone to have child abuse or neglect.

Those factors, however, do not excuse putting children at risk.

Some have questioned whether the annual report is an accurate reflection of the child abuse problem. They note that financially strapped states faced with tight budgets have reduced children and family services, and those agencies may not have the means to investigate as many cases.

We hope that's not true. Officials in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio should take a good, hard look at their respective agencies to ensure they have adequate resources to take care of a highly important task -- protecting our children.

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