SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- It's an unfortunate story on which KY3 reports all too often: children abused and neglected. A newly released Community Focus report says continued difficult economic times have made the problem worse.
Children are defenseless victims of sometimes horrible crimes. Some, like the case of Dominic James, the little boy who died in foster care at a home in Willard in 2003, forced a wave of change in Missouri's foster care system. One of the latest high-profile cases is that of 2-month-old Kaiden Light. Springfield police say his mother killed him a year ago.
The new report says it's a trend that has no simple cause. It's a combination of poverty, lack of early childhood development, and even lack of support from elected officials. Concerned civic leaders met say it's time to act.
"Child abuse and neglect have been a stubborn problem for our community," said Community Foundation of the Ozarks President Brian Fogle.
It is stubborn indeed. Greene County currently ranks second in the state in the number of child abuse cases. According to the Child Advocacy Center, the number of children that it has seen jumped from 445 in 2008 to 595 in 2010 -- a 33-percent increase.
After several years of making headway on "red flag" issues such as child abuse, things have taken a turn for the worse.
"The economy happened and we've seen those rates go back up," Fogle said.
"It breaks my heart that the numbers are so high," said state Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield.
The bi-annual Community Focus Report was released Tuesday. It gives a comprehensive look at the issues facing Springfield and Greene County.
"We have more children living under the poverty line than we have in history," Fogle said.
In Greene County, the child poverty rate hovers somewhere around 22 percent. According to the Springfield School District, almost half of all students now qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.
If children are our future, the report says the future needs some investment.
"It's all interrelated," said City Manager Greg Burris. "It's the difference between short-term thinking and long-term thinking."
"No one has ever asked for my position on early childhood. We ask about a whole lot of other things," said Lampe.
Why invest? Well, for every dollar invested in early childhood the community gets up to a $17 return. It adds up over time.
"Less incarceration, higher income, and lower divorce rates," said Fogle.
Investing, experts say, will result in less expense in areas such as increased dropout rates, behavior problems, and substance abuse. They are all contributing factors to future poverty and child abuse.
"It's a disturbing trend. I think it gets down to whether we have the will as a community, a state, and a nation to deal with it," Fogle said.
The report says universal access to early childhood development classes has to be passed at the state level. Arkansas and Oklahoma both provide universal access. As it stands, Missouri ranks one of the worst states in the country when it comes to child care reimbursement for low-income families.
The bi-annual report highlights good and bad trends in Springfield and Greene County. It calls the good things "Blue Ribbon Theme" and it calls the bad things "Red Flag Themes."
Blue Ribbon Themes:
• Entities worked together to maximize resources and reduce duplication efforts
• New partnerships built to work consistently to improve the common good
• Individuals and groups organized to address a single problem together
• Spirit of collaboration used to address big community challenges
Willingness to Address Issues
• Public policy changed to address common problems
• Various faith-based, education, and philanthropic sectors provided support to address issues
• Community issues continued to be tracked through the Community Focus Report
• Springfield-Greene County participated in new community endeavors
• IDEA Commons supported innovative progress
• Innovative arts and educational collaborative programs/partnerships formed to improve quality of life and attract people to our community
• Social capital integrated into community planning
• Private sector resources committed to improve public issues through innovative endeavors
Looking Towards the Future
• Future initiatives planned and developed to continue to improve our community
• Profit and non-profit organizations collaborated to actively gather community information and reports
• Future community programs driven through citizen efforts
Red Flag Themes:Insufficient Public Funding
• Recession negatively impacted public funding
• Tax base did not support public infrastructure needs
• Collaboration efforts impacted by federal, state, and local budget reductions
• Need increased as public funding decreased
• All facets of community impacted by poverty
• Growing concern of poverty levels in Springfield and Greene County