Karen Worthington: If you Want to Prevent Crime, Work to Prevent Child Abuse

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Downtown Atlanta workers may not see pinwheels in the parks this April. The brightly colored children’s toys have twirled in the wind for many Aprils, each representing one of the thousands of children who are abused in Georgia each year. Just two weeks before the start of Child Abuse Prevention Month, Prevent Child Abuse Georgia (PCAG), an affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse America, abruptly closed its doors.

The closure of PCAG presents an opportunity for Georgia to redesign and revitalize our child abuse prevention work. Child abuse prevention activities, such as public awareness, home visitation programs, parent education and early identification of risk factors, are essential components of a safe, healthy, prosperous community.

Abuse and neglect lead a child into a maze of inefficient social service systems and unwanted outcomes such as criminal activities, poor health, school failure and substance abuse. This not only harms individual children and those who know them, it harms communities that have to deal with or repair the damaged lives. Georgia should seal off the door to this maze.

How can Georgia do this? Make child abuse prevention a priority to save children’s lives, save taxpayer dollars, and enhance public safety.

Save lives: For every 100,000 children in the US, 2.33 children die because of abuse or neglect—over 1700 children each year nationally; more than one child a week in Georgia. Children who are not killed by the abuse and neglect are likely to suffer lifelong effects from the maltreatment, as they are more prone to physical and mental health problems.

Prevent crime: Most abused children will not commit crimes, but most criminals were victimized as children. Severe abuse and neglect can permanently change children’s brains, making them less able to learn empathy and properly interpret human interactions and more likely to become involved with the justice system.

Save money: Child abuse is expensive. In 2007, Prevent Child Abuse America estimated that the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States was $103.8 billion.

What prevention activities will keep kids safe in Georgia? Build on successful initiatives such as Strengthening Families Georgia, SafeCare, and changes to the Children’s Code that will increase support for troubled families to keep them out of juvenile court. Invest in evidence-based home visitation, quality early childhood education, an effective child abuse reporting process, and appropriate responses to abuse reports. Finally, support parents, strengthen families, and develop protective factors in families and communities.

Home visitation: the National SafeCare Training and Research Institute, an evidence-based home visitation program for parents who are at-risk or have been reported for child maltreatment, is located at Georgia State University. The Georgia Department of Human Services is working with SafeCare, a model that keeps children safe in their homes and keeps children out of the social services system maze. Georgia is poised to expand access to high quality, evidence-based, voluntary early childhood home visitation services because it has received $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for this purpose. This grant is being administered by the Governor’s Office of Children and Families.

Quality early childhood education: High quality early education programs, especially those that involve parents, enhance physical, emotional and social well-being of children and provide protective factors for families that buffer children from abuse. The benefits of high-quality early learning experiences extend into adulthood, reducing the likelihood that these children will abuse their own children.

Improve reporting process: The goal of a child abuse reporting process is to get useful reports of child maltreatment to the right people at the right time. The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that the vast majority of maltreated children are never identified as victims. Georgia needs a reporting process that is easy for mandated reporters and the public to use and has clearly identified high-value performance metrics.

Appropriate responses: Georgia needs an array of timely, individually crafted responses to incidents of child maltreatment. Children should be protected in their homes whenever possible, waiting lists for services should be eliminated and the effectiveness of responses that Georgia offers needs to be evaluated.

In April, concerned citizens around the country are planting pinwheels in parks and courthouse lawns. Instead of planting pinwheels, Georgia has an opportunity to plant the seeds of a long-term, comprehensive, effective plan to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Karen Worthington, JD, is a juvenile justice and child welfare consultant and writer based in Hawaii. She is an affiliated faculty member of the Emory University Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative and a senior fellow with the Emory Law Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

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