Among the dollars Donald Trump hopes to cut from the federal budget in 2018, a $1.2 billion slice stands out. That's the money dedicated to feeding and supporting millions of children via after-school programs across the country. Despite the fact that 1.6 million children are supported by such programs — which include classes before school and during the summer — there's no "evidence" such programs boost academic performance, according to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
But such an argument for cutting funding ignores what these programs do — namely, keep kids both healthy and safe. After-school programs not only offer children from poor and working-class families nutritious food, but guided activities as well. More than 3 million children live in households where getting enough proper nutrition is a struggle, and 16.6 percent of households with children are food insecure (meaning they aren't sure if they could afford or obtain enough food to meet their needs). Every school year, 21 million kids receive free or reduced-cost school lunches.
There is a less obvious reason these programs are essential: after-school programs and free lunches are a critical defense against child abuse. Six million reports of child abuse are made every year — that's one every 10 seconds. But many of those reports come too late: between four and five children die every day from mistreatment, most before they reach their second birthdays. And the distinct majority of those children who die from abuse do so at the hands of at least one of their parents.
"Here is what we know," Brian Pinero, vice-president of victim services for RAINN, an organization dedicated to stopping sexual violence, told MTV News. "Every eight minutes, Child Protective Services finds evidence for a claim of sexual abuse. On a national level, CPS agencies sustained or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. Of those reported cases, 80 percent [of perpetrators] were parents."
Abuse can also take passive forms like malnutrition: many abused kids don't get enough to eat at home — sometimes nothing at all. Begging for or trying to steal food at school is a recognized sign of parental neglect. This means that teachers and schools are often the best hope for children in danger. "[Teachers] are many times the only adult that the child might come in contact with who is outside of their abusive environment," said Pinero. Teachers are also "mandatory reporters," meaning that they're legally required to report child abuse and neglect to the authorities. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 17.7 percent of child abuse reports that result in an investigation were instigated by teachers and educators. In cases of sexual abuse, 52 percent of incidents reported to child protective services are made by educators.
Katelyn Brewer, president of Darkness to Light, an organization that trains adults to catch signs of child sexual abuse, told MTV News, "If a child is going to disclose [abuse], they are going to disclose to an educator. They're with them all day." Jim Kirkconnell, formerly the senior attorney for Children's Legal Services at the Florida Department of Children and Services, told MTV News that in his seven years with CLS, it wasn't uncommon for schools to be the ones sounding the alarm about these issues. Sometimes, schools have to act even if kids don't speak up about what's happening at home. "I can remember cases [in which schools notified CPS] because parents would show up drunk either to pick up their kids or take them home, or no one would show up at all," he said.
For many kids, those services are the only force keeping them safe from the dangers living in their own homes.
Across the country, public schools are being asked to provide for kids when parents can't or won't. But teachers are often left to their own devices when it comes to protecting children who are at risk of abuse or neglect at home, filling gaps caused by the thin budgets available to child protective services nationwide. That includes offering "extra mile" efforts, like after-school programs — especially ones that help fill nutritional gaps, like the ones threatened by Trump's budget. In 2014 (the most recent year available), 46 states reported that they employed 37,346 CPS workers. Investigators and "alternative response" workers — CPS agents who intervene in cases in which there is lower risk to the child's safety — each completed an average of 67 cases a year. That's more than a case a week.
And that's not considering the fact that the ability of the state to intervene in such cases in the first place is limited. Kirkconnell told MTV News that in order to take action, "the state has to have a compelling reason to intervene in a parent's right to raise their children." That "compelling reason" has been largely interpreted by courts and by Child Protective Services to mean that the child is in immediate danger, which leaves behind millions of children enduring long-lasting neglect or abuse.
That makes after-school programs and free lunch and breakfast programs even more important: They act as a much-needed resource for kids in danger at home to survive without the assistance of legal intervention. Daphne Young, a former teacher and the vice-president of communications and prevention education at Childhelp, a nonprofit organization that works with victims of abuse, told MTV News that teachers are absolutely "critical" to protecting children. "These are the people that help us find out when children are being hurt in their families," she said. Moreover, those teachers can provide assistance to children in situations in which the law can't.
After-school programs and free breakfast and lunch programs, and the teachers and educators who support them, do more than feed kids and keep them occupied. For many kids, those services are the only force keeping them safe from the dangers living in their own homes. And yet, ironically, even though school-based programming provides support for children whose abuse isn't "harmful enough" to require a legal response from an overburdened and underfunded CPS system, that programming is once again on the budgetary chopping block, this time from the federal government. In the name of "eliminating wasteful spending," the victims of abuse and neglect at home, children who need programs that can give them much-needed care and the space to thrive, will be victimized again.