The Star-Ledger Editorial Board published an article on June 12th applauding the expansion of home visitation programs serving new and expectant parents in New Jersey. Investment in voluntary home visitation and parent support services is a step in the right direction. Investments in children in the earliest years – as early as prenatally – have been found to have the strongest impact on lifelong health and well-being. The period from 0-3 represents the most significant time period in terms of rapid brain development and the best opportunity to get kids on a path for lifelong success.
There is a lack of understanding about home visitation programs, which are viewed by some as invasive, unnecessary, and wasteful of taxpayer money. These views are tied to the perception that home visitation programs are an attempt to remedy the “ills” of society – poverty, single parenthood, and teen pregnancy. While these programs may primarily be available to families who are low-income or otherwise deemed “at-risk” for child maltreatment, all parents can benefit from the support of a home visitor. These are not programs for poor people. These are programs for parents who need support. And let’s be realistic – all new parents need support.
Public policies in the US have been based on the assumption that private, informal networks are sufficient to help most parents care for their children. But traditional support networks are not what they used to be. Extended families are separated by distance and life circumstances. Women are working almost as often as men, which means many grandmothers, aunts, and other supports are not there to assist moms on a day-to-day basis. Fathers are stepping up to the plate as equal partners in parenting – often without preparation, role models, or social acceptance of their value.
Relying on traditional support networks is no longer adequate. Few realize the grim outlook for children born in the United States when compared to the remainder of the developed world. The U.S. ties with Mexico for the highest child abuse death among all industrialized nations – triple that of Canada and 11 times that of Italy. To put this in perspective, in the past decade, the US has lost almost four times as many children to abuse and neglect on our home soil than the number of US forces killed in the same time period in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot ignore these truths, and the only responsible course of action is to break from tradition and consider alternatives.
For those who think that prevention programming is wasteful, consider that we spend an estimated $104 billion annually paying for the after effects of child abuse and neglect. This is a conservative estimate, taking into consideration the costs of healthcare, child welfare, criminal justice, and special education that are often a result of child maltreatment. Based on population size, New Jersey’s share of that bill is an estimated $3 billion. We spend $600 million alone in this State on child protective services, which is only after an incident of abuse has been reported. In contrast, the mere $9.4 million allocated to expand home visitation programs that are proven through 25 years of research to prevent child abuse and neglect seems like a wise investment. We can grow healthy children now, or spend exceedingly more responding to the effects of child abuse later. This is not a question of throwing more money at a problem – but rather spending our taxpayer money more efficiently. And the cost savings pale in comparison to the quality of the life improvements for our children.
Universal home visitation is the norm in much of the industrialized world. Countries that provide home visiting to all newborn children also have the lowest rates of child maltreatment and much better overall outcomes for maternal and child health. It has been said that “children’s health is a nation’s wealth” as investments in children today will lead to a more intelligent and competent workforce to compete in the global economy of the future. The expansion of home visitation in New Jersey is the right move to strengthen families during the opportune time – when parenting begins – to get kids off to the best possible start.
As originally printed in the Trenton Times & NJ.com on June 8, 2012:
As the trial of accused child molester Jerry Sandusky begins, we can expect to see, once again, the public’s outrage about the whole tragic affair — how so many children could be victims, over such a long period of time, with no one doing anything. So far, most of the media’s coverage has focused on the question of reporting, i.e. who at Penn State saw something or knew something and should have done something to stop it.
But there has been almost no attention to the question of what it would have taken to have prevented these tragedies from happening in the first place. Child sexual abuse can be prevented.
A key is for parents to know three things:
1) The most likely perpetrator is someone they know and trust;
2) perpetrators take steps to gain the trust of children and their parents, which is called “grooming”; and
3) child sexual abuse happens when an adult has one-on-one access to a child, so parents need to be vigilant about those situations.
Parents need to understand that in 90 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse, the child and family know and trust the perpetrator. The biggest danger to a child isn’t a stranger in the park – it’s someone a parent trusts and even likes and respects — and someone who has access to the child in one-on-one situations.
Just understanding this can help parents be aware of the situations that pose the greatest risk to their children.
Who has one-on-one access to your child? If your child is spending time in a one-on-one situation with an adult, are you able to drop in unannounced? Do you? Is the setting one where a child could be offered alcohol, which is often used as part of grooming? When your child comes home, do you speak with him/her to ask how things went, and what happened that day?
Parents need to stay in touch with their kids’ activities and watch for warning signs that something unusual may have happened.
A relatively small percentage of perpetrators fall into the serial pedophile category, represented by the Sandusky case. More than one-third of all cases involve adolescents with younger adolescents.
So, it bears repeating: Parents need to be vigilant and aware. They must ask themselves if their young teen, son or daughter, is hanging out with much older teens. The “power differential” that happens with an older child and a younger one can be a risk factor for abuse.
Finally, a parent should note whether his or her child has received any gifts from these same individuals, possibly ones that may seem unusual. Perpetrators often provide gifts to victims as a way to gain their trust and affection, or to bribe them not to tell if something has happened. If a child has received such gifts, a parent may simply want to ask more questions. There are other warning signs related to abuse that include mood changes in the child, or signs that he or she has a new fear of spending time with a certain adult, that should be paid attention to.
In all of the cases at Penn State, these warning signs were being sounded loud and clear, yet parents and other adults weren’t listening or didn’t know what to watch for.
Still, today, the media are not asking about these issues or reporting about what it takes to prevent child sexual abuse from happening. Today, by knowing the facts, an adult or parent or caregiver can be more vigilant, ask questions and take steps to protect children. Everyone in our community has a role to play.
It’s not that any adult who cares about or who spends time with a child is a likely perpetrator. We don’t want to live in a society where fear and distrust replace noble human instincts and behavior.
Right now, however, we are not doing an adequate job of protecting our children from sexual abuse. Thousands of lives are devastated each year in New Jersey alone. A little more vigilance and education will go a long way toward preventing child sexual abuse — before it ever happens to a child.
In New Jersey, we have created the New Jersey Partnership to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, a statewide coalition of our state’s top experts. Our strategy focuses on educating adults about the above facts and much more about child sexual abuse that parents and all adults can use to protect children. We’ve chosen three communities to lead the effort, including Mercer County, led by PEI Kids in Lawrence. Eventually, we hope to reach every community in the state. The initiative is based on replicating a successful model, the Enough Abuse Campaign, a research-based model developed with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In New Jersey, we’ve had enough abuse — enough shame, enough guilt, enough harm, enough silence — and we are strongly committed to better protecting the most vulnerable members of our society from being preyed upon by adults who are supposed to be their caring protectors.