Poisoning ChildrenOfficials in Flint MI made a decision that is reprehensible, but not unprecidented
By Melanie Blow
Government officials in Flint MI (the precise list of officials grows every day) made a decision that predictably resulted in the lead poisoning of many children. Americans, and good citizens around the globe, are rightfully horrified. But hidden in the details of budgets and policies, our state and federal leaders sentence children to abuse every year, thus poisoning their minds, bodies and futures.
Flint Michigan made the decision to save money at the expense of its children in 2015, not hundreds of years ago. It really is shocking to think about this. As filmmaker Michael Moore put it in his petition to arrest Governor Snyder for his involvement “To poison all the children in an historic American city is no small feat. Even international terrorist organizations haven’t figured out yet how to do something on a magnitude like this.”
Lead’s danger to children has been well known for about 40 years. Reports that lead in gasoline, paint, and plumbing could cause significant harm to children lead to laws banning, limiting or regulating the metal’s use in these applications. And since the element is hard to root out completely, there are funds and services to test young children for lead, and provide them with appropriate medical therapies early in life if prevention has failed.
While experts all agree we can do a better job at preventing lead poisoning, they also agree that we have protected millions of children from lead poisoning in the last 40 years, and in doing so we have improved society. Lead causes lowered IQ, increased rates of violent crime, and health problems throughout the life of its victims. And preventing childhood exposure to it saves money- according to one recent estimate, every dollar spent in lead-paint hazard control saves between $17-$221.
It’s clear that this debacle is going to be financially costly to an impoverished city. And most likely it has killed the political career of everyone involved, as well it should. Let me reiterate- these people made a decision to do something that was obviously dangerous, without putting thought into how the danger could be mitigated. And they took great pains not to revisit that decision, but rather to stay the course and harm children.
This truly is a remarkably shameful situation. But sadly, politicians at all levels of government make worse ones every year.
Researchers have known for twenty years that exposure to certain childhood traumas is so stressful for children it actually changes the way their brains, immune systems, endocrine systems and DNA develop. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study was by no means the first study to prove that child abuse, neglect and maltreatment (the categories most of the ACEs fall into) was bad for kids, but it proved just how bad they were. Significantly, research on preventing ACEs is 40 years old.
ACEs do many of the same things childhood exposure to lead does- they cause long-term health problems, life-long behavioral problems, and predispose those affected to poverty and crime. We have known how to prevent most ACEs through Maternal Home Visiting for forty years. Currently, only about 6% of the children at highest risk for abuse nation-wide have access to these services.
We have known about best practices that prevent much domestic violence crime, collectively known as The Quincy Solution, for close to 30 years. The two programs are complimentary, not interchangeable, as maternal home visiting doesn’t generally work for women in abusive relationships.
Child sexual abuse has been heavily researched for decades. We know quite a bit about how to interview children, how to prosecute abusers and how to educate adults about its prevention. But we don’t do it. We hand children to their sexually abusive fathers in custody cases 85% of the time, we ensure that Statutes of Limitations on child sexual abuse keep most abusers on the streets, and when communities offer classes to adults on child sexual abuse prevention, they aren’t well attended.
State budgets are being rolled out throughout the nation. Ingrained in all of those is a tolerance for ACEs, child abuse and their expensive consequences. Because not a single state, nor the federal government, is making the prevention of ACEs the priority it should be. Just as the powers that be in Michigan made the decision to risk children’s health and future by cutting corners on water, elected officials throughout the nation make the same decision every year, with every budget and every legislative session. And the number of children they sentence to shorter lives with less potential makes the Flint debacle look like child’s play.
We live in a world where child abuse and maltreatment is seen as inevitable. We know that’s not true. We know that, while prevention isn’t free, it’s much cheaper than the consequences. And we can do something about it.