The Casey Anthony trial and the terrible story of the death and dismemberment of 8-year-old Leiby Kletsky in Brooklyn this week has captivated our nation like so many high profile cases in the past. While many might believe that cases like this will bring attention to the issue of protecting our children, at the end of the day these individual stories only highlight the tip of the iceberg.. The reality is that 150 children, most under the age of four, die every month from abuse or neglect. While high profile cases do bring awareness, they take our focus off the real issue of suffering children and instead keep us embroiled in speculation and legalities.
Despite intense public and media scrutiny of cases such as Susan Smith in 1994, JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, Andrea Yates in 2001 and Baby Gabriel in 2009, the number of child deaths from abuse keeps rising and these abused children become tabloid fodder. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 3.3 million reports of child abuse are made every year, or about one every 10 seconds. The 2009 Child Maltreatment report from HHS estimates that 1,770 child abuse deaths occurred in 2009, averaging to five per day and this number is on the rise. Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education. Child abuse is an epidemic and brutal deaths happen every day in neighborhoods just like those in which we all live.
Many Americans were drawn into the Casey Anthony case - intrigued with the drama of another seemingly “good” American family unraveling. The story of an adorable missing two-year-old girl juxtaposed with a remorseless, carefree young mom living the “beautiful life” fed America’s preoccupation with “reality” TV. By the time attorneys at the trial showed us the real-life imagery of this defenseless child dumped like a pile of trash in a swamp, it was just another episode in the reality show and the public was numb to the horrific nature of what really happened to Caylee.
For those of us that work to prevent and treat child abuse we deal with stories and images like this every day. Horror stories of parents locking their children in cages, or leaving them alone with a box of crackers for days on end while they go on party binges are all too common. Real life cases of parents burning their children’s hands on the stove to “teach them a lesson” or horrible cases of prolonged sexual abuse that continues for years without anyone knowing is the norm for too many of our children.
The drama in that Florida courtroom is nothing compared to the life or death situations that kids face every day. Although we hope that Caylee will still receive justice, perhaps her tragedy could be a spark in all of our lives to make a change for all the children who suffer unnecessary, tragic deaths. Great strides have been made in recent years with better reporting, new legislation and increased awareness, but there is still much to be done.
The first step is education. There are many free resources at www.childhelp.org including statistics and tips for children, parents and professionals on signs of child abuse, ways to stop it and how to report it. Parents, children, neighbors or anyone can call 1-800-4-A-CHILD®, a national 24-hour free crisis hotline staffed by degreed counselors. The calls are anonymous and can be the lifeline needed to de-escalate an abuse situation, answer questions or concerns, gather resources or help an abuse survivor cope.
In this day and age, with a rising epidemic of abuse, we cannot use the excuse that we didn’t know. Everyone, including the media, needs to offer help and resources to families and parents that are struggling- we have an obligation to our children and an obligation as citizens within our communities to be advocates for those who cannot speak for themselves. They, just like Caylee, deserve nothing less.
Kristi Murphy, (LCSW) is Clinical Director at Childhelp, Inc. a leading national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and neglect and at-risk children.