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The Denver Post published an article today on Denver truancy court, and on the importance of diagnosing the problem with a child who is chronically truant rather than just punishing the violation of the law (  As DPS truancy attorney Amber Elias put it, “School attendance is only a symptom. The purpose of truancy court is to identify what the disease is and how to address that.”

A good example of how important that is can be found in the case of 15 year old Louis Pollack-Trujillo, whose truancy was a direct result of an undiagnosed depression anxiety disorder. “I wanted to go to school; I just didn’t want to go in the building,” he said. “The rooms felt too full, and there was too much going on.”

There is a movement underway in child and family services, called “Systems of Care” (SOC), which integrates and coordinates child-oriented services and agencies across the spectrum, including schools, juvenile justice, and county health, mental health, family, and social services. Both federal and state legislation (including in Colorado) is making it easier to “blend and braid” different funding streams (traditionally difficult to do, due to the precise discrete reporting requirements of each program), so that services can be designed as an integrated package for each child and family. By doing so, we can prevent the problems that fester and grow in the absence of such proactive attention.

This is just one dimension of the choice we face as a nation: Whether we want to be the kind of people who justify failing to do the best we can to address the problems that kids face, and by doing so prevent the problems that ensue from failing to provide kids with an education, to address debilitating mental illnesses, to provide health and mental health care services, to address abuse and neglect issues, to address substance abuse issues by the children or their parents, to address truancy and other juvenile justice issues, and to address all of these as parts of a single whole.

Those who chant the mantra of “less government,” without taking into account the legitimate demands that government alone can adequately meet, are not only contributing to higher rates of adult non-productivity and public dependency, associated higher rates of crime, and the intergenerational reproduction of these same problems in a cycle of perpetual costly dysfunctionality, but are also costing tax-payers far more in the long-run by declining to invest in far less expensive early interventions rather than incurring the far more expensive costs of reactive but ineffective “solutions” like incarceration and welfare. By refusing to use government as a precisely targeted proactive tool addressing specific issues, we are trapped into using it as a blunt and costly reactive necessity.

It’s like failing to maintain upkeep on a house or car, allowing it to deteriorate instead, at far greater expense to the home or car owner. It’s just plain dumb. And in this case, the deterioration of the “house” we’re talking about not only costs us, but involves enormous human suffering, suffering which has detrimental rippling effects throughout society.

The choice exists on many levels: Whether to try to resolve conflicts or pay the costs of their eruption; whether to try to identify and treat mental and emotional disorders, or to wait until those who suffer them impose costs and suffering on others; whether to find and address the causes of problems, or turn a blind eye and only deal with the results of not having confronted those problems affirmatively and proactively.

The rest of the developed world has very definitely and clearly selected the former strategy of confronting problems proactively, and have far better success at diminishing violent crime and infant mortality, improving social mobility, reducing incarceration rates, and, in general, spending more of their public resources on improving the quality of life rather than paying for the failure to do so. Isn’t it time we joined the modern world as well?

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As we continue the great national debate over whether we are the kind of people who believe that worshipping mindlessly at the alter of the “small government” idol is more important than using government as intelligently as we can as one tool with which to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world, let’s put some meat on the bones of what, and who, we are forsaking when we fight to shrink our government. (What follows is just one, most poignant, example of the myriad ways in which our anti-government hysteria in this country is really an act of collective cruelty and callousness, and an economically irrational one at that.)

We are foresaking, among others, the millions, perhaps tens of millions, of American children who endure horrendous abuse and neglect every day. We are forsaking the little girl in North Carolina who not only suffered from bone cancer and lost a limb to it, but also was relegated to a living hell by a callous and cruel parent, and has quite probably since been murdered and disposed of by her ( We are forsaking “The Lost Children of Wilder,” the children depicted in the book by Nina Bernstein by that name which traced the history of one little girl and the court case in her name, illustrating how the need to buy child services on the cheap, through religious organizations, led to horrendous abuses and systemic deficiences ( We are forsaking the four-month old baby girl whose parents broke as many as 40  bones in her body (, the eight year old boy tortured day and night for months by his parents (, the teen starved for years by her parents until she looked like a concentration camp survivor (, and millions of other children suffering like them. (In 2007, 5.8 million children were involved 3.2 million reported cases of child abuse: The number of reported cases vastly underrepresents the number of actual cases, since what happens behind the closed doors of the family home is rarely reported).

There are those who argue that declining to empower and fund our government to address these problems more assertively and proactively is not the same as “forsaking” these children, because there are laws against child abuse, and we prosecute those who violate them. But that is not preventative medicine, and does not make the suffering of these millions of children any more palatable, any less tragic, and, most importantly, any less preventable.

There are those who argue that it is indeed our social responsibility to try to address this problem, but that government is not the right vehicle for doing so. They refer to private charities as being the preferable system, conveniently ignoring the historical deficiency of relying on private charities to address social problems, and the role that those charities have played in implementing public policies and programs that mobilized resources the charities themselves recognized they would never be able to.

There are those who argue that addressing these issues should be left to state and local governments rather than the federal government, to which I say, fine, as long as we fund state and local governments sufficiently to address them, and empower state and local governments to do so. Unfortunately, those who make this argument tend to be the same people who passed TABOR in Colorado (and are currently floating far more extreme revenue-depriving ballot measures). The “small government” crowd may refer most often to the federal government, but, when push comes to shove, it’s all government that they oppose.

The tragic irony is that they are not only crippling our ability to assist these children so desperately in need of our assistance and intervention, but that they are imposing far more devastating fiscal and economic costs on us by doing so. Our public failure to provide effective social services to those who need them creates long-term problems whose reactive costs are far, far greater than the costs of providing effective proactive services would have been. A quote from the above-linked New York Times article about The Lost Children of Wilder reveals the consequences of failing to deal with poverty proactively:

This book makes two things clear. First, it is foolish to separate parents from children with the ease that our current system encourages. Our policies assert that it should be less comfortable to be on welfare than to work, which is sensible. They also assert that a mother who cannot feed and house her child should not raise him, which also is sensible. The consequences are not. [One particular child’s] care cost the city half a million dollars, far more than it would have cost to support his mother, and it repeatedly and traumatically severed him from an enduring human relationship, as crucial to a child’s development as food and heat.

Second, the problem is poverty. This is perhaps not a novel insight, but this history makes it sickeningly clear that the state cannot solve the problem of needy children without doing something about the conditions that produce them. There are so many children, so few resources — in this stunningly prosperous age — and, repeatedly, solutions born of crisis and good intention create disasters of their own. Children who enter the system tend to exit it as poor and unskilled as the parents who bore them, and the cycle grinds painfully on.

It’s time to stop justifying our cruel condemnation of millions of American children to the most nightmarish of existences by recourse to an ideology which, when you strip away the layers of hollow rationalization, really amount to the institutionalization of mutual indifference, and inexcusable indifference to children in need.