Four preschoolers push their bulging bean-bag chairs into a circle and sit down to read.
With one glance, it's clear that they come from different homes, different backgrounds, different worlds. Yet they've all come to this spare, quiet room on the west side of Los Angeles for the same reason: They're considered "at risk" of being abused or neglected.
The reasons can vary widely - from having parents who were victims of abuse themselves to simply coming from low-income households. While each of these kids fits that profile in one way or another, their presence here is a sign of hope.
That's because they're here in an effort to stop abuse before it starts.
Programs like this have played a key role in bringing the rate of child abuse and neglect to its lowest ebb in 10 years, experts say.
Moreover, their success reflects a deeper change in American culture, as society becomes less tolerant of violence against children - whether it be spanking to enforce discipline or striking out in anger. These shifting societal mores, coupled with money from the soaring economy, have created new momentum in the nation's fight against child abuse.
"From my perspective, the coast-to-coast network of child welfare has reached a point that is more hopeful for kids than ever," says Michael Kharfen, communications director for the US Department of Health and Human Services, which released new statistics last month.
Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that cases of neglected and abused children fell for the fifth straight year in 1998.
Many factors have contributed to the drop. For one, the decline in the number of people on welfare and record-low unemployment have had an impact, as have strides made in combating substance abuse. There has also been growth in the number of programs aimed at prevention, from teen pregnancy to those created for "at risk" kids.
Still, the current statistical decline is modest, many observers note. In 1998, about 903,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment, down 11 percent from a 10-year high of 1.02 million in 1993. Yet the 1998 figure is still higher than numbers from 1990, in which 877,000 cases were reported.
"It is wonderful that these numbers are declining, but the remaining statistics are still way too high," says Steven Ambrose, vice president of programs for Children's Institute International, which offers child-assistance services. "And there remains a tremendous amount of unreported abuse, although the decline is probably connected to those numbers as well."
Rise of neglect
In the decade reflected by these statistics, nearly 1 in 4 of the reported cases concerned physical abuse. But that ratio is shrinking, with more children becoming victims of neglect, which includes problems such as emotional deprivation, diminished educational opportunity, and inadequate nourishment.
"Abuse is more noticeable as a bruise or broken arm, but we also have to think of neglect as abusive," says Anita Bach, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. "In a way, this is harder because we have to focus on so many other intangibles that have to do with quality of life."
But she and others say the signs are positive. Increasingly, people are taking personal responsibility for treating children better and not just relying on government agencies.
"We are beginning to grow up as a society," says Michael Durfee, who directs the child-abuse prevention program for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. It runs the largest program for abused children in the world.
"I have not seen a kid hit in public in over a decade," he adds. "I used to remember constant yelling and hitting in public, but that has diminished. There is more understanding today."
That cultural shift has made preventing child maltreatment a top priority for lawmakers nationwide, translating into more money for child-abuse programs.
A recent study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government looked at human-services spending in Georgia, Missouri, California, and Wisconsin. It found that all had significantly raised their child-welfare budgets.
In Illinois, the state upped its allotment from $490 million in 1991 to $1.4 billion in 2000. The spending helped cut the number of children coming into the system by 52 percent in the past five years, officials say. It has allowed the state to invest in staff - from front-line caseworkers to follow-up investigators - as well as programs in other areas, which offer day care, prenatal care, and education about teen pregnancy.
"It is better to serve families and kids right to begin with than get them into the welfare and foster-care system," says Jeff McDonald, director of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
To free up more money, some states are getting a waiver that allows them to use federal welfare money for programs that target child abuse and neglect.
"About 25 states are now using federal funds for innovative programs such as preventive services," says Mr. Kharfen.
These range from counseling to services that help parents with child care. States are also subjecting their spending patterns to more scrutiny to make sure they get the most for their money.
Hard road ahead
But Kharfen and others admit hurdles remain. More than 100 court orders and consent decrees are in place, meaning that many agencies are still struggling to fulfill their obligations.
And recent findings here in Los Angeles show that pockets of problems remain. A study released Friday reported that child homicides rose 9 percent here in 1998, the last year for which statistics are available. Nationally, the number remained unchanged at about 1,100.
The sweeping Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 is being held up as one reason for the stabilization of such deaths and the lowering of abuse statistics. It gave states more flexibility in determining how to reunify children with their birth families. And it required states to conduct criminal-record checks for prospective foster or adoptive parents.
"With the landmark Adoption and Safe Families Act as well as community-based child-abuse prevention programs, there is more hope than ever for a stronger web of protection for children," says Olivia Golden, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society