It Takes a Community to Raise a City

July 17, 2018  //  United Way

Lancaster County’s rate of child abuse and neglect investigations varies from year to year. Overall: the outlook is positive. Per capita rates of incidents of reported neglect have decreased by 17% since the rates hit highs in 2011,  while efforts, outreach and visibility on the issue have dramatically improved.

How can we continue making strides? By creating awareness and reversing the negative stereotypes, stigmas and perspectives surrounding parental neglect.

For many, this is not a comfortable conversation to have. But too often, it’s these conversations that need to be had most.

So let’s have a conversation about neglect.

When we say neglect, we’re talking about a situation in which — for any number of reasons — parents are unable to provide for and support their children’s fundamental physical or emotional needs. Today, we’re examining the ways public perceptions tend to differ from reality. We’re taking a look at what neglect really looks like, right where it often starts: inside the home.
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As of 2013, parental neglect accounted for 58% of all incidents of children aged 0—19 years old being removed from their home (i.e., placed into protective or foster care). While those numbers have fluctuated over the years, the actual number of nationally investigated cases has been on a steep decline since 2010. But Lincoln and Lancaster County still has a ways to go, with more than double the national average per capita of neglect-related displacements (1.25% vs .5% nationally).

So who’s to blame?

That question might be a big part of the problem, said Kristina Hagan, a caseworker for CEDARS Home for Children. We sat down with Kristina to talk about the neglect issue at large, as well as the effects that negative stereotypes can have on our community’s ability to address the issue of neglect  while providing preventative and recovery aid.

Because neglect and poverty are often intertwined, Kristina urged that we must first understand that poverty takes two shapes: generational and situational. Generational poverty is ingrained. A survival lifestyle, where focus is placed exclusively and by nature on “just getting by.” Because these parents and families are living day-to-day, let alone month-by-month, long-term plans are not only out of the picture, but are passed on from parent to child. It’s a vicious cycle that without intervention, can continue uninterrupted. However that intervention never comes for too many of the families in our city. For most, they’ve never known any other way.

On the other hand, situational poverty is often tied to unforeseen circumstances. It could be a sudden-onset of a debilitating illness, unforeseen unemployment, or the unexpected death of one of the family’s providers. Many Americans are only two paychecks away from situational poverty.

The big difference between these two types of poverty is that victims of situational poverty often have the skills and education to remove themselves from their situation. It’s vital to factor this in while looking at childhood neglect. Kristina gave us some insight into how we should approach and consider these situations when they’re encountered.

“People often ask ‘what did you do?’ instead of ‘what happened?’” Kristina said. Even that small change in phrase can immediately shift the sort of blame that is often misplaced, and is always crippling.

We’re better suited to help someone recover and overcome future roadblocks when we gain perspective by looking at how that person arrived in his or her situation. Putting blame on poverty-stricken people only further alienates them from society, and makes reaching out to them harder to do.

Through collaboration with United Way, programs like CEDARS, one of the organizations participating in the Community Response effort, are able to provide services such as youth shelters, childcare centers and street outreach initiatives to provide Lincoln families an opportunity to improve their lives. Parent-specific resources are available too, such as financial classes that teach critical strategies to help them get back on their feet.

Wanting to better the circumstances of your family shows that you care for them, and that you want the neglect to stop. That, Kristina said, is just part of being a parent.

“I’ve never met a parent that didn’t want better for their children. I’ve met a lot of parents that don’t have the means — whether that be time, money or a support system. And they’re smart parents who love their children. That’s why we have [children]. All of those variables that exist in poverty are too big — the mom that has to work three jobs to support her family just doesn’t have the time to make sure her kid is getting a healthy meal,” Kristina said.

Poverty can affect anyone at virtually any time, and it’s important we start looking at it through the lens of how to help — not whom to blame. When we do, we move toward making Lincoln a better place to live.

We want — and need — to reverse those stereotypes and tell the truth about childhood neglect.

That’s why this is just Part 1 in an ongoing series about neglect in Lincoln. Down the road, we’ll be examining neglect at both the community and public-policy levels, and will be speaking to experts in order to prove that when it comes to the slow crawl of endemic poverty and parental neglect across our nation — Lincoln isn’t going down without a fight.

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Unless otherwise notated, all figures and statistics were found within the 2017 Lincoln Vital Signs report, which can be found available to the public here.