Editorial: Budget cuts put more kids at risk

Published 9:05 am Monday, August 1, 2011

Food withheld. Chained to a bed each night in a room that reeked of urine.

We don’t know how long the two sons of Brian and Charity Miller endured such conditions in their home near Dexter, and we probably never will. Only the Millers themselves know all the facts, and we can only hope that their two children have short memories.

There are some heroes in this case. School officials reacted promptly and aggressively when a 5-year-old boy described strange goings-on in his home. Child-protection services and the police took the matter seriously, and in short order the boy and his brother were in foster care, and the abusive parents were in custody.

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We don’t often talk or think about the role a teacher or day-care provider can play in detecting signs of child abuse, but it’s huge. Good teachers develop a rapport and a certain level of trust with their students, and as such are the first line of defense when it comes to sniffing out and reacting to signs of trouble at home.

But as the public recoils in horror at this crime and objects vehemently to the fact that the Millers didn’t face felony charges, we’d point out that as Minnesota continues to allow its social services safety net to erode, the risk of such abuse and neglect grows.

The Health and Human Services budget bill that Gov. Dayton recently signed into law reduces payments for child-care providers who serve low-income families. It cuts funding for the emergency assistance that helps families pay past-due rent and stay in their apartments. Such cuts will guarantee that more Minnesota children will be home alone during the next two years, or dumped off at the home of friends or relatives whose residence and/or lifestyle is neither appropriate nor safe for kids. Others will be at home with a stressed-out parent who would like to work but can’t afford to.

It’s basic economics. Financial distress trickles down to children. When poorly educated, low-income families lose part of the safety net that’s keeping them afloat, the kids suffer, even if mom and dad have the best of intentions.

This means that social workers throughout Minnesota are likely to see their workloads increase, even as the counties that pay their salaries grapple with the latest bout of financial belt-tightening.

So, while we recoil in disgust at what happened in the home of Brian and Charity Miller, we all need to be aware of the possibility that thousands of other children, perhaps some we see on a near-daily basis, are at risk of being neglected or abused in less headline-grabbing ways.

If you’re waiting for someone else to ask some pointed questions or call the authorities, keep in mind that there might not be anyone else.

— Rochester Post-Bulletin, July 26

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