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Child abuse increases as economy falters

ONE four-month-old baby was shaken so violently she needed surgery. Another three-week-old suffered fractured ribs from abuse at home. A nine-year-old diabetic boy stopped receiving proper treatment for his condition.

Those cases reported by Boston hospitals are part of a spike in child abuse in the United States during a recession that has driven some families to the brink and overwhelmed cash-strapped child-protection agencies.

"In the last three months we have twice as many severe inflicted injury cases as we did in the three months the previous year," said Allison Scobie, program director of the Child Protection Team at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Typically, her hospital handles about 1,500 such cases a year. That rose to 1,800 last year.

"We're finding that it is directly attributable to what is happening economically," she said. "Many of the hospitals around here report an increase of 20 to 30 percent of requests for consultation regarding suspected child maltreatment."

Many cases bear the imprint of economic troubles, like a nine-year-old diabetic boy hospitalized after his mother, a single parent, could no longer afford insurance co-payments needed to treat his disease. She left him home alone for long stretches on days when he required medical attention.

Family services

"She had difficulty with the bare bone things that would keep this child healthy," said Scobie.

Similar stories have surfaced in other regions, according to anecdotal and official reports. The Illinois department of child and family services, for example, reported a 5.8 percent rise in child abuse cases in the state in 2008. In the Chicago area, child abuse cases rose more than 9 percent.

Child abuse cases in Ohio, a state hit hard by the recession, topped 100,000 for the first time in 2007 and have continued to rise, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a nonprofit association of agencies charged with child protection.

"Many of our county agency directors tell us their child abuse reports have risen," said the group's director, Crystal Ward Allen, whose agency relies on revenue drawn from property taxes, which have collapsed in the recession.

"Our basic safety net is really faltering," she said. Most recent federal data show child abuse declined in the United States in 2007 to a rate of 10.6 percent of America's total 71 million children, from 12.1 percent in 2006.

Past recessions

But some see that changing dramatically. A March poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research showed that 88 percent of 607 sheriffs, district attorneys and chiefs of police nationwide expect a rise in child maltreatment. They based their views largely on similar rises in past recessions.

Many doctors agree. Seattle's Children's Hospital and the Harborview Medical Center are seeing more children suffering subdural bleeding caused by blows to the head from abuse. Last year, they admitted 32 children, nearly three times more than average.

"We have been pretty busy again this year," said Dr Kenneth Feldman, medical director of the Children's Protection Program at Seattle Children's Hospital.

A flurry of cases startled doctors late last year in Syracuse, New York. "I was just shocked," said Dr Ann Botash, who heads the child abuse program at State University of New York in Syracuse.

The medical university treated 19 children with head injuries consistent with beatings or being severely shaken last year, including four who died. Victims averaged about seven months old.

"I'm seeing more severe physical abuse. In general there's a lot more stress right now in society. And it comes out on the kids. They are the weakest link."


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