AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine has had success through mass-media and public education efforts preventing drunk driving and keep people from smoking, state Human Services officials say.

On Wednesday, the focus shifted to child abuse, a problem that is often addressed after the fact rather than before it occurs.

More than 100 advocates, service providers and educators attended a conference to launch the state’s “Stop! Child Abuse” campaign at the Augusta Civic Center, designed to treat child abuse as a front-line public health issue.

Gov. John Baldacci set the tone of the conference, saying the state must find a better way to address a problem that inflicts “a staggering cost, as much emotional as financial,” on society.

The direct financial costs of child abuse in hospitalization, chronic health problems, mental health, police and court costs nationally is $24.4 billion a year, according to Prevent Child Abuse America’s 2001 annual report.

“The Department of Human Services is not going to stop child abuse,” said its acting commissioner, Peter Walsh. “It is a social problem, much more than the front-line case workers can handle.”

The number of reported child abuse cases has increased steadily in Maine and the rest of the country for the past 25 years. DHS said it now receives more than 9,000 reports of abuse and neglect each year, an increase of more than 2,500 in the past decade.

State Health Director Dora Anne Mills said that of the total, 2,100 cases of abuse are substantiated. “And there’s no outrage,” she said.

One reason, Mills said, is a gap in efforts to change the culture of thinking that’s focused on responding to abuse rather than preventing it. Mills said “social marketing” to heighten the emphasis on prevention has worked to discourage smoking and drunk driving.

Kevin Kirkpatrick of the Chicago-based nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse America, Wednesday’s keynote speaker, said efforts to change the way of thinking on child abuse prevention are just beginning nationally.

Kirkpatrick said that up to now, the emphasis has been negative as parents were told what not to do. That conflicts with Americans’ independent streak that makes them resist being told how to raise their children, Kirkpatrick said.

“The real challenge is to build on their strengths,” even if the parents’ only strength is that they love their children, he said.

Kirkpatrick said parents need to be told that seeking help in family crisis situations is a sign of strength, not weakness.

“We have to be willing to admit they (abusive parents) are trying to change their behavior,” he said. “We have to approach the issue from their prespective.”

A campaign aimed at preventing shaken baby syndrome might shift the emphasis from condemnation to the fact that it’s perfectly normal for babies to cry and it’s not the parent’s fault, he said.

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