Opinion Columns & Blogs

Prevention effort saves kids, money

The highlight of the recently released fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect was the finding that there was a 26 percent decrease in incidents of serious child abuse between 1993 and 2005. While this news is certainly worthy of celebration, Kansans — and particularly members of the Wichita community — know all too well that there is still work to be done to ensure our children are safe and their families are strong.

These decreases took place during a time when states and the federal government were making massive investments in evidence-based prevention strategies, such as home-visitation programs, parent support, and education and information on early childhood development. At the same time, the public became more aware of the problem, as well as the short- and long-term consequences of child maltreatment, leading to greater intolerance in both the general public and within families where abuse and neglect had been a hidden concern for far too long.

As the study illustrates, these efforts made a real difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children and families. Now is not the time, as some would suggest, to decrease our commitment to prevention strategies. Rather, it's an opportunity to reinforce how these services are less costly to our children, communities and nation.

And that's not just the human toll. For example, we know that every $1 spent on prevention saves $7 in intervention services, and that expenditures associated with child maltreatment in the United States amount to $103.8 billion annually.

As the state chapter for Prevent Child Abuse America, Kansas Children's Service League is committed to developing proven prevention programs and strategies in communities across our state. To that end, early this year we were able to re-establish a Healthy Families program in Sedgwick County.

Healthy Families is an evidence-based home-visitation program that works with expectant and new families experiencing stressors that may hamper their ability to parent effectively. Our home visitors work intensively with families, providing information on child development and care, and ensuring that babies have a medical provider and receive regular checkups. These services generally last until the child is 3 or 5 years old.

Knowing that children succeed when their parents succeed, our home visitors also work with moms and dads to connect them to community resources to meet immediate needs such as housing, unemployment and counseling services. They also help families develop goals and a concrete plan to achieve future success — such as completion of school or purchasing a home.

But I think the most important service our home visitors provide is support for the young family. So many parents today — either by chance or choice — don't have a developed network of friends and family members they can rely on to help them on their journey into parenthood. They don't have a good example of a healthy parent-child relationship, they haven't experienced a nurturing home in their lifetime, and they are not familiar with alternative discipline and parenting styles. But by encouraging that bond between parent and child, a strong buffer is created when the baby won't stop crying, the toddler won't potty-train, or the preschooler is prone to tantrums.

In 2010, Kansas Children's Service League has funding to offer the Healthy Families program to 40 Sedgwick County families. Is that enough? No, but it is a start. As the movement of the past decade suggests, however, we expect this and other prevention initiatives to take hold and help create stronger families and communities for our children.