Experts assess laws, costs in fight against child abuse

Child abuse and neglect test society's equally powerful need to keep a torn family intact when possible. And to support the individual members when it is not. No group is more aware of this than child-care social workers.

That is why for the 3,000 delegates attending the National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect here this week, three developments have the potential for major impact on their work with the estimated 1.3 million children in the United States who experience abuse or neglect annually.

* Public trust funds to help fight child abuse.

* Tough new laws to force neglectful parents to pay child support.

* Court decisions clarifying the role of social agencies in child abuse situations.

''Right now society's awareness of child abuse is at a critical moment,'' says Anne Harris Cohn, executive director of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA). ''It has taken us 10 years to bring the issue of child abuse out of the closet and make it a popular concern.'' The economic downturn, not increased reporting, as Ms. Cohn sees it, has caused a rise in the incidence of child abuse in the last two years.

''But only if the number of children abused has declined 10 years from now will we know it is more than just popular concern,'' she says. ''Prevention, not just awareness of the problem or lawsuits, saves families.''

It is in a period of shrinking state and federal child-care budgets that the idea of a ''children's trust fund'' has emerged. Legislation exists or is pending in 13 states creating new sources of support for programs to prevent child abuse without raising taxes. There are two parts to the children's trust fund.

''First, an advisory group of individuals with a demonstrated interest in preventing child abuse is created to establish priorities for distributing monies,'' says Thomas L. Birch of NCPCA. ''Second, money to build the fund is generated by surcharges on marriage licenses, birth certificates or divorce decrees, or by specially designated refunds of income tax.''

What makes the children's trust fund so effective, child-care workers say, is that it creates a continuous revenue stream immune to the fiscal ups and downs of a state's economy, or the policy vagaries resulting from changing politics in the legislature.

The second area of public action focuses on the fact that last year about $4 billion was ''owed to children'' by parents who failed to pay child support. Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret M. Heckler has issued a ''call to arms'' and signaled ''this administration's thrust to enact effective measures to collect child support money.'' Social work delegates here welcomed a countrywide, grass-roots effort by medical, social-service, and legal professionals.

Passage and rigorous enforcement of child support laws will make an important contribution, says Secretary Heckler. About $16.7 million of her department's $ 289 billion budget is committed directly to child abuse and neglect programs.

In the area of court decisions, recent and precedent-setting rulings affecting parental rights in child abuse and neglect case law are enabling social agencies to know their roles and responsibilities more clearly, say social workers, in meeting child abuse case needs.

A guiding principle in these decisions is a concern for the child's right to permanency of home and protection. But a range of rights is at stake. And there are some disclaimers.

''Judges just don't feel they are setting nationwide policy. They are dealing with particular situations that perhaps set a pattern or trend,'' says Lucy Younes, legal analyst for Information Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Balancing of the parents' constitutional right of family integrity and a child's right to protection are constantly being weighed by judges, Ms. Younes says.

On the legislative front, child-care workers see their task strengthened as some states have broadened child protection laws to include sexual exploitation in cases of prostitution and pornography. State codes in some instances allow for a more liberal use of out-of-case evidence - such as the videotape testimony of a minor who has been sexually molested or exploited.

''We're also seeing instances where the nonpaticipatory parent who stands by while a child is battered is also being held liable,'' says Howard A. Davidson, director of the National Legal Resource Center for Child Advocacy and Protection.

''Medical neglect cases in five appellate courts have found that parents are liable where life-saving treatment for a child is witheld for religious reasons, '' he adds.

''Diligent follow through on the placement of a child in foster care on the part of the placing agency,'' is also under the courts scrutiny, says Mark Hardin, director of the Foster Care Project in Washington. Since the need for permanency in a child's life is important, courts desire quick placement of a child when the parent persists in conduct which causes a child to be removed to foster care, Mr. Hardin says. Quick can be one year to 18 months, he adds.

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