There is no question that the service provided by the state's medical program to identify and help child abuse victims is both effective and much needed. The fact that nearly all the funding for the program has been cut is a clear sign that across-the-board cuts aren't the answer to the state's budget problems.
About 21,000 suspected cases of child abuse are reported to state and law enforcement agencies each year, with about a third of them found to be actual sexual, physician or emotional abuse. Before the medical review program was started in 2003, fewer than 2,000 children were evaluated for abuse.
Last year, the network of experts trained to evaluate abuse cases examined 4,315 children, seeing most within 72 hours. Child abuse ranks second, behind asthma, as the most chronic childhood condition in South Carolina.
This network, a nonprofit collaboration among the major state children's hospitals, has been funded by the state Department of Health and Human Services since 2007. But DSS was forced to ax most of the money for the program in December after it was ordered by the state to make nearly $137 million in cuts, or roughly 15 percent of its entire budget.
"This is a tremendous loss," said Maggie Michael, executive director of the collaborative. "In child abuse cases, you don't always get a second chance, and a quick professional diagnosis is crucial."
Experts note that these diagnoses are critical to triggering the programs that will keep these children safe. The 17 doctors in the network are specially trained to recognize child abuse, collect the medical history and conduct the tests that will provide evidence that stands up in court.
Even before the December cuts, state reimbursement to hospitals did not cover the full cost of exams. Hospitals often stepped in to cover the difference.
But without any state funding, the long-term future of the program is in jeopardy. Thousands of children are unlikely to get the attention they need -- particularly in tough economic times when child abuse is likely to rise.
Combing through the state budget undoubtedly would produce many other valuable programs that have lost funding due to cuts. Some of those would be targeted cuts, but others would be victims of the type of meat-ax budget chopping mandated by the Legislature.
It is hard to imagine that, among all those cuts, any could be as heartbreaking as the elimination of a program designed to rescue young victims of child abuse. We can only conclude that the state's safety net has been seriously compromised.