Investigating child abuse and neglect cases is expensive, and the costs are only going to go up as stigmas fade and more instances of abuse in the home and community are reported. The Legislature and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker must address the issue — responsibly — in next year’s state budget.
According to the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, there were 10,917 reports of child abuse in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2016. That’s an 18 percent increase from 2015, the association said.
Much of the increase has come as more community members — think teachers and day care workers — are required to report any suspected abuse or face a $1,000 fine. The numbers will likely continue to rise as lawmakers add to the list of “mandatory reporters.” State Sen. Joan Lovely, for example, has filed legislation that would add youth coaches and animal control officers to the list. And changes in state law aimed at preventing human trafficking, which went into effect last March, require prosecutors to investigate any allegations of child sexual exploitation.
Lovely, a Salem Democrat, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade that an estimated 90 percent of child sex abuse goes unreported.
“We don’t want to deter people from wanting to coach sports or getting involved,” she said. “We just want people, if they see something that doesn’t seem right, to say something.”
We agree. We also agree with the District Attorneys Association, which points out increased reporting does not come without a cost.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office received 1,618 reports of child abuse in fiscal 2016, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.
Blodgett’s spokeswoman, Carrie Kimball Monahan, notes that investigations are complicated and expensive, adding that prosecutors must provide housing, counseling and other services to the children.
“These cases aren’t just paperwork; there’s a lot of work involved,” she said.
The extra work has not come with extra resources.
Last year, she said Essex County had “300 more cases, with no increase in funding or staff.”
In their letter to Baker, written by associate counsel Jennifer Franco, the district attorneys say they “do not have case coordinators and administrative staff to handle the influx of cases reported.” The funding shortfall, they said, hurts their “ability to perform their core investigative and prosecution functions — and which in turn seriously impedes the progress of these time-sensitive cases.”
The Baker administration, meanwhile, points out that it increased funding for the district attorneys by 5 percent, or about $6 million, in the current budget. It also increased funding for the Department of Children and Families by about $50 million.
Clearly, there is a commitment by all three parties — prosecutors, legislators and the executive branch — to address the issue. Here’s hoping the issue does not become a battleground in the debate over next year’s spending plan.