Friday, July 18, 2008

Below, a good op-ed by Senator Chris Dodd, who introduced the Shaken Baby Prenvention Act (S. 1204). It ran in the New Haven Register in 2007, but unfortunately remains just as cogent today.

Senator Dodd: Stopping Child Abuse Before It Starts

May 25, 2007

Two-month-old Amanda was in grave danger from the day she was born. Her mother, a Connecticut resident, had a long history of physically abusing her children; she had already lost custody of nine of them. But Amanda was a newborn, and protective services couldn’t save her. On January 23, 2006, her 2 a.m. hunger cries enraged her father; and Amanda’s mother only looked on as he viciously took her life.

While Amanda is now beyond our power to protect, let’s remind ourselves that we still have the means to defend children like her—to stop abuse before it starts. True, the task is a daunting one: Numbers released last month by the Department of Health and Human Services reveal that nearly 900,000 American children were abused or neglected last year. We don’t know how many more thousands of victims were hidden from the child protective services. But we do know that abuse or neglect killed almost 1,500 children last year. And the youngest, like Amanda, suffer most: More than three quarters of those killed were younger than four.

Each year we spend billions to protect those children who have been so injured, so endangered that home is no longer safe. No one grudges that expense. But fighting child abuse is a lot like fighting sickness: We can pay exorbitantly to fight the advanced symptoms of disease, or we can seek preventive medicine. In far too many cases, we choose the first approach—and we wait to step in until the abuse has boiled over.

A preventive approach would require the work of whole communities. Government, teachers, businesses, doctors, clergy, friends, neighbors—they would all have a role to play, working together to create communities that care about children and offer parents the resources they need. We know that reducing the pressures on parents makes abuse much less likely: A 2005 study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect found a link between parental stress and child maltreatment.

Those services—like home visits, respite care, and parent support groups—can help parents solve problems before they become crises. Rather than intervening when it may be too late, preventive services aim to strengthen families from the start. Primary medical checkups, for instance, don’t just keep children healthy and immunized—they help parents learn how to care for their children. Respite care doesn’t just keep children secure—it helps moms and dads deal with the inevitable stress of parenting. Above all, preventive services draw parents into a sense of community and belonging, giving them the tools to navigate an often isolating environment.

One outstanding effort is the shaken baby prevention program led by the Connecticut Children’s Trust Fund. The Children’s Trust Fund raises awareness of this deadly form of child abuse by offering home visits, educational programs in schools, and videos for new parents in hospitals. And a bill I’ve introduced—the Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention Act—would strengthen efforts like those by launching a nationwide prevention campaign.

With this new, forward-looking approach, communities across America are pioneering similar family-friendly strategies to keep abuse down:

Organizing support groups for new parents;
Offering paid or unpaid family leave for the birth of a new baby;
Promoting volunteerism to assist early childhood programs in the community;
Seeking on-site child care or child care vouchers from employers;
Developing partnerships with local Head Starts, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other community programs serving young children and their families.

But services like these are just the first small steps—truly preventing child abuse will require a much larger effort.

Let’s be honest: It will cost us up-front. But all good investments do. We can pay comparatively little now for child abuse prevention: early-childhood programs, assistance to new parents, and community-based help for overburdened families. Or we can pay much more for the aftermath of abuse: protective services, foster care, law enforcement, courts, prisons, and treatment for adults recovering from abuse. To any smart investor, the choice is obvious.

But compassion compels our choice, as well. When we wait for abusers to make the first move, children like Amanda suffer; all too often, they die. For the sake of their memory, the first move must be ours.

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