Kids Count report: Eaton County reports huge jump in child abuse, neglect

Eaton County, MI – The latest report from Kids Count in Michigan shows a disturbing trend: growing numbers of children are living in poverty, and statewide the rate of child abuse and neglect rose by 34 per cent over the last 10 years.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic for mid-Michigan comes from Eaton County, where the rate of child abuse and neglect jumped more than 400 percent over the past decade.

There's not a clear answer about why the rate of child abuse and neglect in Eaton County rose by so much. Eaton County United Way executive director Rick Garcia says families in Eaton County are suffering the effects of the state's long recession.

"Honestly, I don't have an answer," says Garcia. "When I look at the various populations throughout the county, you see some of those families that came from blue collar manufacturing jobs finding themselves laid off. We're finding kids who are left fending for themselves while their parents are out looking for jobs or going through retraining."

The statewide numbers are better than Eaton County, but still a major concern. Jane Zehnder-Merrell is director of the Michigan League for Human Services. She says 32,500 children in the state were confirmed as victims of abuse or neglect in 2010.

"We've gone from 10 per 1,000 in 2000 to roughly 14 per 1,000 in fiscal year 2010," says Zehnder-Merrell.

Most of the increases were in what's called "Category 3", where the risk of repeat abuse or neglect is considered low to moderate. Still, Zehnder-Merrell says, damage has been done.

"The fact that we have this level of abuse, and it's probably more to do with neglect, is definitely a concern in looking long-term at the mental, physical and emotional health of children," says Zehnder-Merrell. "We know that these kids suffer into adulthood the impact of abuse and neglect during those formative years."

Statewide, the number of children living in poverty rose from 14 to 23 percent. This year, the report also looked at levels of poverty and found the percentage of children living in extreme poverty increased from five to 11 percent. Extreme poverty is about $11,100 in annual income for a family of four.

Jack Kresnak of is president of Michigan's Children, a non-profit advocacy group that collaborates on the Kids Count report. Kresnak says the research is clear, that poverty and child neglect go hand in hand.

"As childhood poverty increases, children living in poor homes, as that rate increases, so does the risk of children being neglected and abused," says Kresnak. "So when we see this huge increase in child abuse and neglect rates, we can directly tie that to the economy. They are more likely to be neglected by their parents, who lack the resources to provide what's needed to raise a child today."

Kresnak says recent policy decisions, such as cutting the state Earned Income Tax Credit and putting stricter time limits on cash assistance, are also having a negative impact on poor families. Also, he says the agencies and organizations that provide services for families are underfunded.

Rick Garcia of Eaton County United Way says those agencies use the Kids Count report when applying for government and private funding.

"The Kids Count data is sort of like our bible," says Garcia. "It's like our base line for a number of resources and grants. It's a good way to build a case that's very compelling."

Garcia says the Kids Count report is a wake-up call for Eaton County and the rest of the state. He says it's time to get the word out that many children in Michigan are in desperate circumstances and need more help and support than they're getting.