With the trial and sentencing of Jerry Sandusky finally behind us, the community that’s home to Penn State has begun to assess the lessons learned from this tragedy, as well as to offer comfort and support to its victims. But as the State College police chief, I know that communities like ours have a long way to go to ensure that our children are protected from all forms of abuse and neglect.
As candidates take positions on various issues this campaign season, it would be refreshing to hear an informed discussion about how to address child abuse and neglect, which affects as many as 700,000 children a year nationwide.
The unfortunate reality is that parents or others in the household are responsible for the vast majority of abuse cases, sexual or otherwise. In Pennsylvania, for example, parents and other primary caregivers were responsible for 62 percent of the roughly 3,400 substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect last year.
As many as half of these cases could have been prevented if at-risk families had better access to voluntary, home-based parent-coaching programs that help parents deal with the many stresses and challenges of raising young children. Evidence-based home-visiting programs have proven so successful that police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys across the country, as members of the anticrime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, have launched a national campaign to stress the importance of this strategy in reducing child abuse and neglect.
For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership, a voluntary home-visiting intervention program operating in State College and other locations across the country, sends trained nurses into the homes of low-income, first-time mothers on a regular basis, beginning before birth and continuing until the second birthday.
Long-term evaluations have shown that the Nurse-Family Partnership can cut child abuse and neglect in half among at-risk families. In addition, the program reduces the incidence of many other problems associated with at-risk youths and families that can drain taxpayer resources, including emergency-room hospitalizations, intensive care for victims of trauma, and even later juvenile delinquency.
These programs are also cost-effective. Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which has studied ways to reduce prison and other costs to taxpayers while providing added benefits to citizens, has calculated an average net savings of nearly $13,000 for each family enrolled in the Nurse-Family Partnership.
I and many of my colleagues in law enforcement strongly support these programs because they can help break cycles of negative behavior passed from parent to child, from one generation to the next.
Unfortunately, though, home-visiting programs are underfunded throughout the country. In Pennsylvania, for instance, only about 23 percent of the roughly 14,000 eligible single, first-time mothers are able to participate in the program. That’s why more than 1,560 of my fellow police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys from across the country – or one for every child who lost his or her life to abuse or neglect in 2010 – signed a recent letter urging Congress to invest additional resources in effective child-abuse prevention programs.
Investing in prevention will ensure that fewer children are abused, neglected, and possibly even killed. If we are serious about protecting children, we must expand the reach of voluntary, evidence-based home-visiting programs for families in need across the country.
Thomas R. King is the chief of police in State College, Pa.