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Invisible Children
by Mike Tikkanen
August 4, 2004

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90% of the children in the U.S. Juvenile Justice system have come from the Child Protection system. Over 90% of the adults in Criminal Justice have come out of Juvenile Justice. Legislators predict the need for new prisons by extrapolating from the number of children in their Child Protection System. America is the only nation in the world to build prisons based on the number of children in Child Protection.

America has created a prison feeder system for poor and abused children. Abused children are 66 times more likely to enter Juvenile Justice than children who are not abused. Most of the children in the Child Protection and Juvenile Justice Systems are people of color and poor. Income and color seem to be great un-equalizers.

For many years America has suffered about 40,000 murders per year (plus millions of assaults and robberies) and for twenty of the last twenty-five years between one out of four and one out of five Americans has been a victim of a crime every year.

For a long time the United States has had the highest per-capita rate of incarceration (imprisonment) of all the industrialized countries (except for Russia).

Today, there are 600,000 felons in Florida (without counting the current prison population in Florida). About 600,000 felons are released each year in America, with little chance of employment, or fitting back into to the community. We the People have decided that prisons are for punishment, not rehabilitation.

For many years, the U.S. rate of recidivism (returning to prison) has been greater than 66%.

America executes more people who were prosecuted while juveniles than any other country in the world. We are the only nation at the UN to refuse to sign the Child Rights Treaty (190 other nations have signed it), simply because we refuse to stop executing juveniles.

Consider these truths the next time your DA charges a 16 year old who randomly shoots someone outside a convenience store, as an adult (or, the 12 year old girl who left her baby in a shoe box under her bed). Both children were terribly abused by their parents (national and local cases this year).

Children sent into the adult Criminal Justice System are 8 times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be raped than if they were in the Juvenile Justice system.

The prison industry is a good business in America and it makes big money. Prison related industry has a much larger PAC (money raising political action committee) than do the abused and neglected children of our nation (there is no money raising PAC for children's issues).

Nationally, a disproportionate number of the children in abusive homes, Child Protection, and the Juvenile Justice system are children of color and poor. They are invisible, and they have no voice in their own affairs. We don’t see them until they have done something terrible. Then we punish them.

As a nation, we don't spend much money helping children in need of protection, or the ex-convicts they become, to fit back into our society. We do spend a fortune on prisons, parole, and the court systems that send them to jail.

Child Protection Systems vary widely from state to state. When a county gets bad press (a child dies forgotten, or lost in the system) county child workers get the blame. The media doesn't bring attention to the huge caseloads of the social workers, or the lack of services that are available within the system to help the worker to get results.

The community may be outraged, but it continues to provide minimal funding to run these systems.

Fifty years ago, senior citizens were ignored by their community & discovered by the media to be eating dog food out of cans and sleeping under bridges. The media brought attention to the communities neglect of seniors and the community got involved, people called their senators and legislation was changed to make the lives of seniors better.

Seniors are much better represented today because of Social Security, AARP, & the active awareness of the groups Seniors have formed. Abused children don’t have the knowledge, or the capacity to call their senators, protect themselves, or even to bring attention to their circumstances.

Abused children can’t form groups, or lobby to have laws changed. It takes an involved and aware community to deal with the problems of child abuse, or nothing changes.

The social workers and service providers that I have met have all been committed hard working people who work in this field because they want to make a difference and they care about people. Most caseworkers are overburdened and working without the resources needed to complete the job they were hired to do. Their community needs to stand behind them and provide them the necessary tools to help the children they work with succeed. Caseworker moral is often low, turnover high, and this results in inconsistent service to children.

I know of several children in my experience who have had between thirty and forty different caseworkers. These are children who are removed from their family and have little or no other consistent contact with any care provider, or family member. One young man had 27 foster placements over an 8 year period.

American children need more help than they are getting. I work in a Child Protection System in a county that is better funded and better respected than many others and it is only marginally addressing the problems of the children in its system.

Funding the future well being of abused and neglected children is the right thing to do and it will save us money. Funding prevention and early intervention programs is a practical investment and it will return big dividends.

Our Child Protection and prison policies are costing us much more than the just the cash to build and maintain prisons. Children in Child Protection who are too old, or too troubled to be adopted, can be part of the Child Protection System for ten years or more.

These children are 66 times more likely to experience both the Juvenile Justice System and the Criminal Justice System. The cost of institutionalizing millions of American citizens for ten to thirty year periods runs into many millions of dollars per child/inmate (and it is common).

By not removing children from abusive homes in a timely manner (as the rest of the industrialized world does) we incur huge ongoing costs related to crime, mental health services, educational failure, and the livability of our communities.

Between 50 and 75% of the children admitted into the Juvenile Justice system have diagnosable mental health issues. It costs great sums to treat these illnesses, especially if the child has been abused for some years (the average length of sex abuse is four years). It costs a great deal more to 'not' treat these illnesses.

The cost of crime in America is estimated at between 500 billion and 1.6 trillion annually. These numbers are arrived at by valuing the rapes and murders of our family members at what most of us would consider unacceptably low numbers ($20,000 per rape of your child, or your spouse, $5000 per assault, etc..)

There are also the misunderstood costs of abused and neglected children in our public school system. Many of these children have severe mental health problems and they can be uncontrollable and dangerous in our classrooms. The national statistical data of pregnancies, assaults, and students carrying guns on school property is in the range of 8% to 12% of the student body (for each category).

Private schools don't have to deal with these problems and that's why their cost per pupil is lower. The next time you are asked to consider vouchers, remember this. Public school teachers are under much greater stress in their classrooms than are private school teachers

That's at least partially the reason that some of them take the reduced salaries to teach in private schools.

Abused and neglected children are being placed in the public school system without making the necessary investment in training and support to accommodate them (12 to 14 thousand abused and neglected children are in the Minnesota Child Protection System this year). Many of those children are not receiving the mental health services that they need. The state of New Jersey has recently completely dropped it's mental health services within their school system. Their abused and neglected unmanageable children are all going to directly to detention centers and jail.

The issue of abused and neglected children in our schools is largely underreported and results in a repeated and undeserved bad press for our educators. I challenge those of you who doubt this to spend time in the inner city public schools.

It's not the teachers in these schools who are costing us money, it is quite simply the 900,000 American children who were reported as abused, or neglected last year for whom our teachers have to provide safety, discipline, and an education.

That's why our national high school dropout rates are not the 2% and 3% that have been reported over the last few years, but in fact they are between 20% & 40%. It’s why 25% of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, and why three years ago on a national test of high school seniors, one out of three of them could not find Florida on a map.

If you compare the difference between how the rest of the developed world handles these same problems, you would find that our current treatment of abused and neglected children is expensive, counter productive, and cruel.

What’s a concerned citizen to do? Bring your attention to the issues and become aware and active in the discourse of what’s really happening, what’s at stake, and how to make things better. Try to understand the underlying issues, make them part of your current public discourse & bring it to the attention of others. Call, write, & visit your political representatives.

Get involved, volunteer, send money to organizations that are dealing with the issues. In Minnesota; St. Joseph’s Home for Children,, Prevent Child Abuse MN;, or nationally; become a mentor, Big Brother/Sister, guardian ad-Litem, or call the United Way and ask for ideas. Every community has the problem. Each one of us can make a difference. Personal involvement at some level is the only way change ever occurs.

Abused and Neglected children need the attention of the larger community (that’s us). Nothing will change until ‘we the people’ make the changes. Unlike American senior citizens of fifty years ago, abused and neglected children cannot alert their senators, or even bring attention to their plight, they are INVISIBLE and they have no voice.

If ‘we the people’ remain silent and neglect to bring attention to the problems of abused and neglected children, these painful conditions in our schools, in our cities, in our prisons, will remain for all of us to suffer as the cycle continues.

The words of the current governor of the state of Minnesota, "children who are the victims of failed personal responsibility are not my problem, nor are they the problem of the state of Minnesota," (spoken to David Strand and Andy Dawkins in September 2001) clearly define an attitude and public policy that will keep our prisons full and our police busy.

Today, due to our personal lack of attention and awareness to the weakest and most vulnerable among us, and the politicizing of complicated social issues, ‘we the people’ will be seeing more new prisons, increasing crime & more unnecessary suffering.

Mike Tikkanen is a Minneapolis MN business broker and Hennepin County volunteer guardian ad-Litem who writes, speaks, and gives workshops on what it REALLY costs us (personally, communally and nationally) to continue abusing and neglecting our children. He can be reached at:

Sources: Children’s Defense Fund, STATE OF AMERICA’S CHILDREN, Youth with Mental Health Disorders: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Handle with Care: Serving the Mental Health Needs of Young Offenders (Coalition for Juvenile Justice), Getting It Together, the Health and Well-Being of MN Youth, National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the U.S., U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FBI; Crime In the United States, (Uniform Crime Reports), U.S. Dept of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, New York Times, Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Minneapolis Spokesman Recorder, Harvard School Of Public Health, David Strand, NATION OUT OF STEP.