Child Abuse Prevention Month reminds me of the parable of the river. There’s a peaceful community on the edge of a river. One day, a villager notices a baby floating down the river and dives into the water to rescue the infant. She takes the baby home, hoping someone would come looking for him.
The next day, the good Samaritan sees two babies floating downriver and calls a neighbor to help rescue them. The following day there are four babies in the water, and every day after, more and more babies are floating in the river, until the entire community has to work 24/7 to rescue and care for as many babies as they can. Eventually, so many babies need to be rescued that the people at the river can’t save them all.
Finally, one wise person proposes that some of them go upstream to find out why the babies were in the river in the first place so they could stop more babies from drowning. But every person in the community was needed to rescue and care for the babies arriving in their community each day, so they reject the idea. The villagers are able to save more babies, but the number of babies who drown increases even more.
Each baby in this story represents a child who has been abused or neglected. In Washington, there were more than 6,500 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in 2010 — nearly 20 babies tossed into the river every day. Clearly, we must rescue these children and protect them from further harm, but we also need to go upstream and try to put up barriers to keep them from getting in the river in the first place.
Our goal must be to prevent child abuse before it happens. Research has shown that one of the most effective child abuse prevention strategies is intensive home visiting for families at the greatest risk of child abuse and neglect. One voluntary program, the Nurse-Family Partnership, has been proven to significantly reduce child abuse and neglect. In studies that compared families receiving the home visits with those who didn’t, the rates of child abuse were cut in half in the families that participated in the program.
Providing programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership will put a strain on our resources in the short term, but will save lives and taxpayer dollars in the long run. One of the long-term costs of child abuse and neglect is in the criminal justice system. Although most abused and neglected children grow up to be law-abiding citizens, victims of child abuse are significantly more likely to commit crimes as they grow up. A study that compared youth from similar backgrounds and neighborhoods concluded that being abused or neglected almost doubles the odds that a child will commit a crime as a juvenile.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has conducted a cost-benefit analysis of several prevention programs. They calculated an average net savings of nearly $21,000 for each family enrolled in the Nurse-Family Partnership program. This provided the highest return on investment of any of the programs in their analysis.
We have a moral imperative to prevent the abuse and neglect of children. We need to protect those innocent children from falling in the river. Home visiting is a powerful child abuse prevention tool that we must have available for vulnerable children and families throughout Snohomish County and across Washington.
John Lovick is the Snohomish County sheriff.