April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month—a good time for us to look at the child abuse and neglect crisis in America. The statistics are shocking: A child is abused or neglected every 40 seconds. During 2007, an estimated 794,000 children were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect, and almost 3.2 million children were subjects of abuse or neglect investigations. Nearly 60 percent of child victims suffered from neglect, the most common form of child maltreatment. These include some of our youngest children. Almost 22 of every 1,000 children under the age of one were victims of child abuse or neglect.
Too few abused and neglected children get the help they need. Only slightly more than 60 percent of maltreated children received any services after an initial investigation. The consequences are deadly: 1,760 children died from abuse and neglect in 2007—nearly five children a day.
Not only is child maltreatment cruel and wrong, it also carries a heavy economic cost. Prevent Child Abuse America, a national organization that builds awareness about this issue, estimates that the direct and indirect costs of abuse and neglect to the United States are more than $284 million every day, nearly $104 billion each year. Child maltreatment and repeated exposure to domestic violence have been associated with negative behaviors and poor health outcomes in adulthood. Studies have found that toxic stress in children can result in alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, promiscuity, smoking and suicide later in life.
But nine times more federal child welfare dollars are spent on out-of-home care for victims of abuse or neglect than on preventive services. Focusing on prevention is crucial, especially during an economic downturn. The added stress on families can result in increased reports of child abuse and neglect. Recent media reports show that this is already beginning to happen in communities across the country.
What can we do to prevent child abuse and neglect from starting or recurring? There are solutions that work. Studies have shown home visiting and other family support programs can help prevent child maltreatment. One recent study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that communities where the Positive Parenting Program was available to all parents had significantly lower rates of confirmed child abuse, fewer placements into foster care, and fewer hospitalizations from child abuse injuries when compared to communities without access to the program. A study of the Nurse Family Partnership Program showed that unmarried and low-income women and their very young children who received regular home visits from nurses had 48 percent fewer verified reports of child abuse or neglect. Another study demonstrated that Healthy Families, another home visiting program, reduced abuse and neglect of young children.
Programs that identify families who may need support early and provide help as soon as problems begin also are effective. A number of states are implementing new response systems as alternatives to the routine child abuse or neglect investigation process to help families receive support sooner. Some states are finding new ways to evaluate families’ strengths and needs and bring together extended family and others to assist overwhelmed parents. Children in foster care who have been abused or neglected often need special support. A new law enacted in the 110th Congress, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, will help these children get the education, health care and permanence they need in their lives. This new act now needs to be implemented across the country to truly benefit children.
We need to increase states’ and communities’ ability to address substance abuse, mental health problems and domestic violence—problems that bring children to the attention of the child welfare system. Evidence shows that comprehensive family-based treatment works; family drug courts can be effective; treatment for mothers who are depressed or have other mental health problems helps them meet the needs of their children. We must support agencies offering critical family assistance or treatment services to children and families in crisis.
Preventing child abuse and neglect is everybody’s business—not a job for government alone. Many improvements are needed in the way public agencies respond to child maltreatment. But all of us can make a difference. Reach out to an overwhelmed parent with young children. Volunteer at a public agency serving families in crisis. National Child Abuse Prevention Month is a time to commit to working together as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, faith leaders, staff of protective service agencies and programs, and policy makers to keep our children safe.