BOSTON — Kids shoes, 772 of them in all, neatly lined step after step of the Grand Staircase on Thursday as Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and child protection advocates sought to draw attention to the average of 772 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect each week.
"If I asked you to raise your hand if you are proud to live in Massachusetts, I know I would see a lot of hands go up. We have a lot to be proud of," Suzin Bartley, executive director of The Children's Trust, said. "Recently the federal government announced that Massachusetts has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in the country. Yes, we're proud to have tough mandated reporting laws, but we want to be the leader in preventing child abuse before the damage even occurs."
In 2015, there were 40,166 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect in Massachusetts and another 98,394 cases that were reported but not confirmed by the Department of Children and Families, according to the Children's Trust.
"For that 90,000, who we know must be struggling because a mandated reporter had sufficient concern to contact DCF, well they're kind of left alone to fend for themselves," Bartley said. "We can do better. Rather than letting families wait until they totally unravel and the damage to children gets worse and worse, we should be in there very early and connecting families to family support."
Polito, who called children the greatest treasure in life, proclaimed April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, and said the state's efforts to battle drug use and addiction play a crucial role in supporting families and breaking cycles of violence.
"We need to empower mothers and fathers to success and we need to use education and supports to help empower families to have a good and stable life here," Polito said. "That certainly makes it more difficult for parents to parent when they are trying to wrestle with deep addiction, trying to wrestle with mental health issues, trying to wrestle with not having the skills that connect them to a job that they can work at and bring stability to their home, or wrestling with the issue of homelessness because they've left a violent home in order to seek a better place for their children and them to live in."
Since taking office, Polito and Gov. Charlie Baker have worked to reform the embattled DCF, which came under scrutiny following several high-profile cases, including the 2013 disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found along a highway in Sterling, a 2-year-old girl who died this summer in foster care in Auburn and the case of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after he was allegedly abused and starved by his father.
The Baker administration has proposed a $938.2 million budget for DCF in fiscal 2017, which would represent a $30.5 million increase over the current budget. Additionally, a supplemental budget approved last week by the Legislature directed another $15 million to the department.
Also at Thursday's event, the Children's Trust recognized Rep. Ellen Story and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr with awards for their legislative efforts to combat abuse and neglect of children.
"We should never ever be a place where a child worries about their safety," Tarr said.