America's system for dealing with child abuse is itself being abused, a new study finds. Well-meaning social workers use it - mistakenly - to care for neglected rather than physically or sexually abused children. Fixing the system and providing effective help to neglected children would do something at least as important. It would make inroads into the cycle of poverty among members of America's small but increasingly worrisome underclass. Experts warn that working with the parents of neglected children often is extremely difficult and expensive; but success could provide a nation with part of the roadmap it seeks to find its way out of the problem of multi-generational dependency by a growing number of defeated welfare families.
The new study is by Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute and the first director of the US National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. America is ``mistakenly using the child-abuse system to deal with a poverty underclass issue,'' he says.
``There are a disproportionate number of poor, socially deprived children found in foster care,'' he says. Too many of these are children who, although they were not in danger of being physically harmed, were removed from their original homes because they were considered neglected emotionally, physically, or educationally.
On balance, moving these children to foster homes harms rather than helps them, Mr. Besharov says. Neglected children ought to be kept at home, he says, and provided with intensive services from infancy: nutrition, health, and daytime child care outside the home, to provide stimulation.
Such a step would free space in foster homes for the children who actually should be removed from their families: youngsters who are physically or sexually abused.
Frequently it is said that child neglect, like abuse, occurs in all economic and social groups in the US, and that is technically accurate, Besharov says. But the neglect occurs predominantly among the poorest of the poor, among ``a very small part of welfare caseloads.'' Most neglected children, he says, ``have disorganized and dysfunctional parents.'' These adults find it beyond their capacities to cope with the everyday chores that most Americans take for granted, like washing the dishes or getting their children up and fed early enough to attend child-care programs or schools.
The problem is not welfare or race. The problem is poverty: poverty of spirit, poverty of pocketbook.
A new staff study by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress shows that high unemployment and falling wages, not the rise of single-flamily households, were most responsible for the 7 million increase in the number of poor Americans since 1979.
The report challenges the view propounded by conservatives in and out of the Reagan administration that an increase in teen pregnancy and single-parent families has accounted for much of the decade's rise in poverty.
Besharov estimates that perhaps 300,000 to 400,000 children in this so-called underclass are neglected. To make a difference, to prevent a perpetuation of the cycle of poverty and dependency, he says, foster care is the wrong approach. Rather they require early intervention by society, action from infancy: ``That's where we ought to be putting our dollars.'' Besharov recommends, for example, child-care programs that are stimulating, good meals, and health care.
Helping such children is extremely important, but it requires a substantial commitment of energy and funds from society, Besharov says. ``These children are in need of better parenting,'' he adds. ``I suggest that we provide substitute parenting'' while they're living at home, through child care and programs in which workers spend time with parents and children in their homes.
Determined outreach will be necessary, Besharov insists: ``The parents are extremely difficult to reach, let alone successfully treat. ... You can't get them to come'' to a support group. ``If they do come, they just sit there for an hour'' without talking.
As another example, he mentions his prior involvement with a child-care program designed to help children of such parents, who have great difficulty mobilizing themselves. The program opened, but parents did not bring the children who were signed up. Thus the program hired a bus to pick up the children, but many children did not appear at the appointed places to be picked up by the bus.
Finally the program had to hire aides to ride the buses with the drivers and go into the homes and, in some cases, get the children dressed so that they could attend the program. Social workers, child-care directors, teachers, and others who deal with such families tell similar stories.
Difficult as the task is, Besharov and other child specialists say, society does know what to do, and the effort should be made. It is morally right to try to help these children, many experts note.
And for American society the stakes are very high. ``We need to do better,'' Besharov emphasizes, ``or the children will be caught in the same thing'' as their parents were - in a cycle of deep-rooted emotional problems, and evident inability to function, either as parents or in society at large.