We doctors are a cynical bunch. The novelty of the white coat expires after a short time treating drug addicts, combative schizophrenics and patients whose idea of "how-do-you-do?" is threatening a lawsuit.
Very few things shock us, but cruelty to children is one of them.
Behind closed doors, we even pontificate on the need for strict contraception laws. "Birth control should be sprayed into the air," we muse. "If people want children, they should pass drug tests and home evaluations."
Bitter? Maybe. Harsh? Absolutely.
The inconceivable becomes plausible, however, after seeing a 9-month-old boy test positive for Mommy's crystal meth and seeing shaken baby syndrome render a 6-month-old girl blind, or after treating the burns on a young girl who was dipped in boiling oil and the cigarette burns on her sister's back in the shape of a marijuana leaf.
Three million reported cases of child abuse and neglect result in 2,000 deaths in the United States annually, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Since 2001, 30,000 American children have been killed in their own homes, taken their own lives or been murdered in their own neighborhoods, according to Every Child Matters, a child-advocacy organization.
Why does the United States lead the world's richest democracies in child-abuse fatalities, with death rates that are three times higher than Canada's and 11 times higher than Italy's? This doesn't even account for the fact that as much as 60 percent of child abuse goes unreported.
Now the nation's and the states' financial crises are leading to budget cuts of as much as $89 billion next year, cutting child services in more than 40 states. In Hawaii, Every Child Matters reports, funding for a child-abuse reduction program was slashed so much that two years after serving 4,000 families, it can afford to serve only 100. In South Carolina, five state-run homes for children were closed. Child Protective Services is severely understaffed, with caseload ratios as high as 60-to-1 in some regions.
Nearly half of all the Texas children killed by abuse belonged to families that had been investigated by Child Protective Services. In order to keep families united, CPS attempts to place children with safe family members. While its motives are admirable, CPS should put a higher priority on protecting children from monsters and sexual predators than it does on keeping families together.
The blame doesn't lie with one organization, though. In fact, the single best predictor of child abuse is poverty. Children raised in families with annual incomes of less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused. One-fifth of American children, more than 14 million, live in poverty.
Budget cuts are taking a toll here, too. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed discarding California's welfare-to-work program to tackle a $19 billion budget deficit, effectively eliminating aid for roughly a million children.
If the most prosperous country in the world can afford to fight two wars, battle terrorism in far-off lands and bail out Wall Street by the billions, why can't it offer its most vulnerable and voiceless citizens anything but bureaucratic red tape?
Children are the only investment with guaranteed dividends. Our refusal to make our children's well-being a priority foreshadows a terrifying future that perpetuates the miserable cycle of brutality, a future that's almost as terrifying as a girl dipped in hot oil or a child shaken to blindness.