Programs to help families must be saved in these
tough times.
There’s no doubt that when the economy sinks, stress in families rises. Unemployment and home foreclosures are on the rise, and family budgets are stretched thin. These factors are a major source of stress for families, and when that stress boils over in the household, innocent children can be the first to feel the effects.
In a recent national poll of law enforcement commissioned by Fight Crime: Invest In Kids, 88 percent of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors agreed that stress and anxiety stemming from the recession would lead to increased cases of child abuse and neglect.
Each day, innocent children in Maine will be beaten, bruised, molested, left unattended or without needed medical attention. A few even die at the hand of their own parents or a caregiver. Every year, there are about 3,500 substantiated cases of children abused or neglected in Maine. The actual toll is much higher, since many cases are never reported.
As the deepening recession forces more families into poverty, more children may be in danger, since research shows that growing up in poverty is one of the greatest risk factors for abuse and neglect.
Fortunately, kids don’t have to be affected this way. Research shows that home visitation programs that coach high-risk parents can prevent many cases of abuse and neglect from ever occurring.
Home-visiting programs send trained professionals, on a voluntary basis, to help expectant mothers and new parents learn about the health and developmental needs of babies and toddlers so they can avoid abusive behavior and raise healthy children. A study of the Nurse-Family Partnership, a home-visiting program that employs nurses, found that it cut cases of abuse and neglect by half in families who received the visits.
Home-visiting offers a sense of support to struggling parents during tough times and spares children from the pain of abuse or neglect.
Law enforcement leaders like myself support these programs because we know they help cut crime in the long run.
This is not just a matter of child safety; it affects the safety of everyone in Maine. Violence breeds violence: survivors of abuse and neglect are significantly more likely to commit crimes as adults and to abuse their own children.
Research compiled by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids indicates that a single year of abuse and neglect will cause an additional 150 young people to become criminals, who otherwise wouldn’t have.
The same study of the NFP found that it significantly cut crime in participating families. High-risk mothers and children who participated in home visits were half as likely to be arrested by the time the child reached age 15, compared to similar families who did not benefit from the parent coaching program. Yet currently, home visiting/parent coaching programs serve less than 20 percent of at-risk parents who could benefit from them.
With tight budgets, it’s a difficult time to be calling for new public investments. But quality home-visiting programs actually save taxpayers dollars — as much as $3 per dollar spent — by reducing incarceration and welfare expenses.
In law enforcement, it’s our responsibility to keep the public safe, and preventing child abuse has to be a part of that. If we don’t ensure funding for home visits, it will be a perfect storm for child endangerment — increased risk and inadequate funding for prevention.
We need to get in front of this problem before the recession causes it to get any worse. The safety of our communities depends on it.

Guy Desjardins, of Sabattus is sheriff of Androscoggin County. E-mail

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