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The Shocking Crime

February 05, 1989

The tragic case of Lisa Steinberg cries out for closer attention to other cases of child abuse, one of the most shocking crimes in America. The victims are so young, so dependent on the ability of adults to restrain rage, and so defenseless when mental illness, drugs, alcohol or other pressures render adults incapable of that restraint. Lisa Steinberg's father, convicted of manslaughter in her brutal death, seemed outwardly a successful person. The case is an all-too-vivid reminder that child abuse obeys no economic boundaries. It occurs in middle-class apartments, even when neighbors suspect what is happening, as well as in urban slums or isolated farmhouses where no one is watching.

Americans are more aware of child abuse today than they were a decade or two ago, but the ability of social services to cope with the problem has not kept pace with awareness. Social workers often have such heavy caseloads that they cannot pursue every report or watch out for every child.

Even when social workers are aware of potential or actual child abuse, they must contend with society's basic belief that children belong with their parents and that aberrant behavior can be changed. If they don't act, they risk the life of the child and possible lawsuits. Sometimes they do act based on potential risk, as occurred when a 2-month old child was taken away from his parents in Polk County, Iowa, last year. But in those cases government is in effect judging some people as unfit parents based on past behavior that may indeed have been changed. Social agencies can't possibly remove all the children in homes where parents abuse drugs or alcohol; where does one draw the line?

When a social worker's instinct says that a child should be removed from his home, and from harm's way, it is often impossible to find proper alternative shelter. Los Angeles County, for example, has too few foster-care homes. In fact, across the country the majority of the 1.6 million children abused in 1986 did not receive protective services because local agencies didn't have enough money to provide them, according to a report by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.

Communities and individuals around the country do what they can to supplement government efforts. In Santa Monica, for example, Stuart House coordinates medical, psychological and law-enforcement aid for children who have been sexually abused. These efforts require dedicated individuals and compassionate financial donors. Imitation would be more than flattery; it would mean hope for children whose lives may otherwise be hopelessly marred.

There is no apparent quick cure for a national plague that afflicts so many young people and kills too many like Lisa Steinberg. But governments, individuals and foundations must continue to strive where they can to curb the causes and ease the pain. Shining the spotlight on the dark corners of life, as the Steinberg trial has done, exposes sickness but may have a healing effect as well.

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