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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. are victims of abuse and neglect, and more than a thousand of them die. The troubled economy has made matters worse. States facing big deficits are now cutting programs to protect children. California alone eliminated almost 400 child protection workers. Arizona stopped investigating less serious abuse reports. Indiana and Ohio have cut programs to prevent abuse. And Oklahoma will soon have one hundred fewer child welfare workers.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the first of a two-part series.

PAM FESSLER: Three year old Eli Johnson was apparently beaten to death for doing what lots of little boys do. He wet his pants. Now, his mother and her boyfriend are in jail. Oklahoma City Police say the boyfriend told them he slapped Eli and punched him in the stomach with his fist. That he got so angry he blacked out, and came to when he had Eli's head stuck in the water of the toilet.

Ms. EVELYN JOHNSON: He was just a sweet little boy. I just cannot imagine anybody doing such a thing.

FESSLER: Eli's great grandmother, Evelyn Johnson, holds a funeral card that shows the picture of a smiling child. His blond hair swept up into tiny wisps. There is a poem on the card called "Please Don't Cry." Evelyn Johnson says she suspected that Eli had being abused and reported it to authorities almost a year before he died last September.

Ms. JOHNSON: The signs really started about the time they decided they wanted to potty train him.

FESSLER: The result of her report? Eli's mother had to take an anger-management class. She and her boyfriend are now awaiting trial for first-degree murder. They've both plead not guilty. It's a tragic case, but to be honest, not that unusual. A couple of days earlier, a 20-year-old Oklahoma City woman was charged with murdering her 3-month-old who had a fractured skull. A few weeks later, a mother and her friend were arrested for locking her son in a closet for more than four years.

And it's not just here. Around the country, at least 1,700 children died from abuse and neglect in 2007. Some people think the numbers are on the rise with the bad economy, although no one really knows.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FESSLER: What Micah Stirling does know, as she walks the halls of the Oklahoma State Capitol, not far from where Eli Johnson died, is that programs to prevent child abuse are on the chopping block.

Ms. MICAH STIRLING (Executive Director, Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma): What we're hearing is that it's unlikely anyone will be preserved at 100 percent. So, we need to prepare for cuts.

FESSLER: That's because her state faces a $1.3 billion deficit. Stirling runs the nonprofit group Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma, which gets state money to help poor and at-risk families with the challenges of parenting. It was already cut last year and they no longer provide clients with much needed items such as diapers, cribs and car seats.

Ms. STIRLING: Hi, Charlie.

FESSLER: So, Stirling is at the Capitol today with a colleague, Charlie Swinton, a member of her board. They hope to convince lawmakers that cutting too much now could cost the state more in the long run more child deaths, more injuries and more incarcerations as abused children grow into troubled adults. It's a tough sell. They head to the office of Republican Doug Cox.

Mr. CHARLIE SWINTON (Board Member, Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma): Representative? Charlie Swinton.

State Representative DOUG COX (Republican, District 5, Oklahoma): Yes, sir.

Mr. SWINTON: BancFirst, good to see you.

State Rep. COX: Who are you?

Mr. SWINTON: I want to introduce you to Micah Stirling.

Ms. STIRLING: Hi.

State Rep. COX: Micah? I'm Doug Cox.

FESSLER: Cox is important because he chairs the committee that oversees their funding. Swinton tells Cox he knows some cuts are inevitable, but asks him to please be kind.

Mr. SWINTON: Micah and her staff work every day with families to raise children and keep children safe. So, we ask your continued support of that effort.

State Rep. COX: Well, I appreciate that. You probably will not find a stronger advocate for your cause than myself because, you probably know I'm an emergency room physician.

FESSLER: And Cox knows all too well how serious child abuse can be. But - and it's a big one.

State Rep. COX: That being said, my other job as a state representative, as you well know, we have to balance our budget and we're down $1.3 billion from last year.

FESSLER: And Cox says he's also being asked to protect funds for senior citizens, children with disabilities and on and on. He says he'll do his best. It's a conversation that can be heard in state Capitols around the country as lawmakers struggle with big deficits.

After a day of meetings, Micah Stirling has lots of sympathy, but no promises. And she's worried.

Ms. STIRLING: I think that we're going to find we had a much higher death rate from child abuse last year than we have in the past. I think that's a direct result of a lack of resources.

Mr. HOWARD HENDRICK (Director, Oklahoma Department of Human Services): Actually, the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, in our state at least, is dropping.

FESSLER: Howard Hendrick, Oklahoma's director of human services, has a different view. He says caseloads are actually down despite the economy. He thinks one reason is that federal stimulus funding has eased the strain on families with things such as more food stamps and jobless benefits. He says state efforts to keep more children with family members and to speed adoptions from foster care have also helped.

Mr. HENDRICK: Overall, we feel very confident in terms of the work that's happening in the child-welfare arena.

FESSLER: But that confidence is not shared by all. Some here think caseloads are down because there are fewer workers to investigate abuse. Hendrick's agency is the target of a lawsuit by a national advocacy group which says that Oklahoma's welfare workers are overworked and the state has failed to adequately protect children in its care.

And then there are the deaths like Eli Johnson's. Hendrick says he can't comment on specifics, but that, overall, such cases are rare, and his workers do the best they can.

Mr. HENDRICK: I don't know of any child welfare worker in America, who's clairvoyant and can predict the future. Every child death is a heartbreaking experience.

(Soundbite of knocking)

FESSLER: An experience that Kristin King wants to make less common.

Ms. KRISTIN KING (Nurse, Children First program): How are you?

MS. BRITTANY ELLIS: Tired.

Ms. KING: Tired?

FESSLER: She's a nurse with the state's Children First Program in Tulsa. She has come to see 20-year-old Brittany Ellis, a single, first-time mother who shares a small house with her mother, brother and toddler son, Elijah. King visits twice a month, as much to check up on Elijah as to provide support for his mom.

Ms. KING: Are you ready to smile and play?

Ms. ELLIS: He's starting to throw fits.

Ms. KING: Oh, really?

Ms. ELLIS: Yeah.

Ms. KING: Well, you know that's a developmental thing.

FESSLER: The goal here is to ease the concerns of young, often low-income parents, to let them know it's normal to get frustrated sometimes. The key is to learn how to respond. King gives Ellis a handout on toilet training, and some advice.

Ms. KING: Never make a big deal about it, because remember the two things that you will not win a battle over: Going to the bathroom and what's the other one? Quiz.

Ms. ELLIS: I knew the going to the bathroom in the morning...

Ms. KING: Eating.

Ms. ELLIS: Eating.

FESSLER: It's advice advocates say could come in handy lots of households, maybe even those like the one in which Eli Johnson died. After an hour with Elijah and his mom, King has to go. She has other clients to see.

Ms. KING: Bye Brittany.

Ms. ELLIS: Bye.

FESSLER: Researchers say these home visits, found in many states, go a long way toward reducing abuse and neglect, but that hasn't protected them from cuts. Oklahoma's Children First Program used to have 270 nurses. Now, there are fewer than half.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Pam reports on two Oklahoma programs designed to prevent abuse and protect the abused.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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