I thought about Billy the other day. Of all the horrible childhood stories I have heard his stands out the most in my memory. His mother was a drug addicted prostitute. His father was nowhere to be found. His brothers were in prison. He spent years in foster care and had a lot of stories, but the worst was about being forced to eat a disgusting dish of spinach.
When Billy ate the spinach he couldn’t hold it down. After a few minutes he threw it back up onto his plate. His foster father looked on in disgust, stood and grabbed Billy by the scruff of his neck and shoved his face into the plate full of vomited greens. Then he told him to eat it, “by God.” He was strict and the household had a policy that all of the foster kids would eat everything on their plates. Billy did eat it, and this time he kept it down. He was twelve.
A few days later he was on the run, unwilling to live there any longer. Later he would escape from a reformatory and live homeless on the streets of Baltimore, stealing and hustling to live. He went to prison at 15 and spent more than 20 years there. That’s where I met him. He did get his life together, and he did okay for himself for a few years before dying of a heart attack.
Usually my work is enjoyable and meaningful. I spend a lot of time with people being honest and learning how to communicate more effectively, or I spend time helping people repair damaged relationships after a harmful act. It seems that the work we are doing is contributing to making the world a better place.
Sometimes, though, I hear about kids who remind me of Billy. They aren’t all in foster care (and of course most foster care is nothing like Billy’s experience), but many have been. It isn’t always clear how these kids can be helped either. An array of social workers, counselors, police and probation officers, teachers and many others are working to keep these kids safe long enough to give them a chance at success. Living their short lives as victims of abuse and neglect doesn’t put them in a good position, and parents who often obstruct efforts to help their kids make it virtually impossible.
I hear the kids’ diagnoses and charges for various offenses and wonder how they could possibly be “normal” in such an abnormal world, a world where they don’t get enough food, where they aren’t safe from abuse, where they get little home support in pursuing their education and where their parents and other adults often openly fight and use drugs. Many of the parents began having kids as teenagers themselves and didn’t have good parenting modeled for them. Many have been incarcerated, and most of the kids only have a single caregiver.
The link between abuse and neglect and involvement with the juvenile justice system is clear, as is the link between the seriousness of abuse and severity of crimes. Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University and Janet Currie of Princeton published a 2006 paper in The National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?” and in it drew on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health showing that abuse and neglect “roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime.”
For perspective consider that “using time-series data from New York, previous researchers found that a single percentage point decline in unemployment generates only a 2.2 percentage point decline in burglaries, and that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage leads to about a 3.5 percent decrease in robberies in New York City.
As economists, the authors go on to estimate the cost of juvenile (and adult) crime associated with maltreatment, and to consider an argument for intervention based on cost benefit analysis. The estimates vary, but it is safe to say that looking over the life of the child and his impact on society it would save us money to invest in these kids now.
Most people would agree, in principle at least, that this is a good idea. The reality, however, is that the dedicated folks who work in child protection services, in schools, as police, or as counselors in nonprofits of all sorts, are understaffed and underpaid for the enormity of the task. They are in a perpetual state of being nearly overwhelmed, with high burnout rates. Legislators often talk about child protection, but good bills often get watered down or amended due to political infighting.
Sadly, it is the kids who pay the most, their potential-filled lives squandered as they get sucked into the downward cycle. Many programs work, and there will always be those who will dedicate their lives to helping these kids, but without the help of us all and the political will to actually do something (instead of endlessly talk about it) little will really change.