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Honoring Clare Shelswell

This editorial was printed in the Shelton Life on March 23, 2012.

Shelton Life (WA) — By Sheriff Casey Salisbury and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen

Every case of child abuse investigated by authorities is a tragedy. Crimes against children not only affect their future, but they also take away a part of their childhood. In the case of little Clare Shelswell, the crime took away her life.

Marking one of the most horrific crimes Mason County Sheriff’s deputies ever encountered, Clare was murdered nearly two years ago. In a fit of rage and violent abuse, Claire’s stepfather slit the child’s throat. Shocked citizens in Mason County and throughout the country learned about the tragedy on television and in newspapers.

High-profile cases like Clare’s get a lot of attention for a short period of time, sadly, before they become distant memories.  Tens of thousands of other cases of child abuse and severe neglect don’t result in death and never make the news. Many people don’t know about the magnitude of this terrible problem.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. As public officials and individuals who have devoted much of our adult lives working on behalf of kids, we believe this is a good time to talk about what we must do to ensure that every child in Mason County and across Washington gets a safer, healthier start in life.

Nearly 700,000 children across the U.S. were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in 2010. At least 1,560 children’s lives were lost as a result.  A third of these victims were under age four.  Many who died as a result of abuse did not live to see their first birthday.

In Washington state in 2010, more than 6,500 children were confirmed victims of abuse and neglect and 12 of them were killed. As terrible as these numbers are, the actual number is much higher because many cases are misclassified or unreported.  In Mason County, the number of children reported to Child Protective Services for suspected child abuse and neglect is one third higher than the state average (32 per thousand vs. 49 per thousand).

Child abuse and neglect has serious short-term and long-term consequences for the children who are victims and for our communities.  Being abused or seriously neglected has serious negative effects on children’s mental and physical health and can result in permanent mental, emotional and physical health issues. Emerging research links early childhood trauma to long-term complications in adulthood including depression, obesity and poor physical health.

In addition to the serious, and potentially deadly, toll on individual children who suffer abuse and neglect, there also are severe costs to the safety of our community and taxpayers. Many children who are victims of abuse or neglect grow up to lead productive lives and never commit a violent crime.  But some do.

Research on the impact of child abuse and neglect reveals that approximately half of all juveniles arrested for delinquency had a history of abuse or neglect. One study found that being abused or neglected almost doubles the odds that a child will commit a crime as a juvenile.  And too often, those who were mistreated as children go on to abuse or neglect their own children, creating a cycle of violence that is repeated in generation after generation.

Fortunately, proven solutions do exist to help at-risk families and prevent the cycle of child abuse and family violence. Intensive, high-quality home visiting connects new and expectant parents with trained professionals who visit the family’s home on a regular basis.  Home visitors help parents learn skills to promote healthy child development, to provide a safe home environment and become their child’s first and best teacher. The highest quality home visiting programs have proven to reduce cases of child abuse and neglect, improve child safety and ultimately prevent future crimes.

A study by the Nurse-Family Partnership found that children whose mothers participated in the program were half as likely to be abused and neglected as those who did not receive the home visits. By age 19, children whose mothers were not in the home visiting program had nearly three times as many convictions as those from similar families who received the home visits.

Analysis from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the Nurse-Family Partnership provides a great return on investment for taxpayers. In a 2011 report, the institute estimates this program produced almost $21,000 in net savings for every family served, with most of the savings coming from reduced criminal justice costs.

Mason County is one of nine counties in Washington offering Nurse-Family Partnership services. Operated by the Mason County Public Health department, it provides services to 25 first-time, low-income teen mothers who volunteer to participate in the program. However, less than one third of eligible pregnant mothers referred to the service can enroll, in part due to a lack of funding.

We need to strongly consider these types of outcomes and impacts when making critical budget decisions around social services. Providing a few dollars to help young mothers learn how to break the cycle of abuse will pay us all huge dividends down the road.

The research is clear that preventing child abuse and neglect will save taxpayer dollars now and in the future and is a solid investment in building safer communities. We must stay vigilant against crimes against children in our communities.

We must protect little ones from harm, offer help to vulnerable families and work to prevent tragedies before they ever occur. That’s how we can honor Clare’s memory from this day forward.