Keep heat on child abuse


POSTED: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

While much attention has focused on the effect of Furlough Fridays on Hawaii's public school children, the nation's economic crisis threatens to deny adequate services to keiki most in need: the abused and neglected. Hawaii's impressive advances in dealing with the societal problem should not be allowed to crumble.

Child welfare advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to organize support for federal legislation to add $5 billion in funds supporting child protection services. A report by the Every Child Matters Education Foundation, which sponsored the event, gives Hawaii high marks, which can be attributed to a change in direction by the Lingle administration.

The foundation pointed to national figures showing that 1,760 children - four in Hawaii - died from abuse and neglect in 2007, up 35 percent from 2001 and much higher than rates in other wealthy democracies. In Hawaii, the number of substantiated cases of child abuse dropped from 3,930 in 2001 to 2,075 in 2007, or 7.3 cases per 100,000 population, going from 30th to 13th lowest in the country.

Amy Tsark, administrator of the state's Child Welfare Services Bureau, has attributed much of the success to an increased effort to keep families together. Under the old policy, the Department of Human Services removed children from their biological parents at up to four times the national rate.

The foundation's report “;said we can do better, and we are already doing better,”; Tsark told the Star-Bulletin's Helen Altonn.

Indeed, Richard Wexler, head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, suggests the federal strategy follow Hawaii's lead. While the foundation supports up to $5 billion to support child protection services, he calls for more money to be directed at supporting at-risk families so fewer children need to be removed from their homes.

Tsark says the state has made good use of federal funds to help such families find and retain employment and has reduced the caseloads of social workers assigned to the problem. Hawaii's repeat abuse rate was 6 percent in 2003, just under the national rate of 6.1 percent, but the islands' rate dropped to 3.1 percent this year, “;one of the lowest re-abuse rates in the nation,”; she said.

“;Even in difficult times we need to prioritize protection of the most vulnerable, which are young children,”; says Loretta Fuddy, chief of the Hawaii Health Department's Family Health Services Division.

As much as the task falls to the states, they need adequate support to help families who are undergoing difficulties unparalleled in recent decades.