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Invest in Keeping Our Children Safe

Thank you for bringing attention to the painful problem of child abuse and neglect during Child Abuse Prevention Month. Though the proclaimed month ended a few days ago, recent horrific stories of child abuse should wake us up to the ongoing need to prevent child abuse.

Our criminal justice leaders get it. I applaud the 12 chiefs of police, sheriffs and district attorneys from around New Mexico who signed a letter to Congress on behalf of Fight Crime Invest in Kids to support funding for voluntary home visiting to help prevent child maltreatment, cut crime and save taxpayers money. I have taken a personal pledge to do what I can to prevent more children from experiencing this life-changing trauma.

Prevention is within reach. Home visiting is a voluntary program that connects parents with trained professionals to provide information and support during pregnancy and throughout a child’s first few years. This connection and guidance cuts maltreatment rates by helping parents and caregivers learn ways to manage stress without resorting to abusive behavior.

New Mexico has many effective home visiting programs that could reach more families, if only there was more funding. Currently, state-funded programs reach less than 5 percent percent of newborns who are a family’s first child.

Abuse continues until we do something. CYFD reports that child maltreatment rose 35 percent in 2010 over the previous two years. Almost half of these maltreated children were age 5 and younger.

Skills to handle a crying or defiant child don’t come easy, and many adults need help to learn what to do before their anger takes over. Violence at an early age unfortunately rewires young brains with lasting ill effects.

Child abuse touches all of us, not just the victim. Abuse leads to crime and continued cycles of abuse.

Evidence suggests that about one-third of adults with a history of abuse may harm their own children. Survivors of abuse often carry emotional scars for life, and research shows they are 30 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime when they grow up.

People we know and love can become a victim of a person who was traumatized by violence as a child.

Preventing child abuse goes beyond being sympathetic – we need investment. We spend about 40 times more on cleaning up the sorrow than on preventing it.

Our spending pattern is backward. We now spend $135 million on child protective services and juvenile justice, but just $3 million for home visiting.

Investing in prevention will spare a lot of pain and suffering and is a wiser use of our resources. Studies show that we yield $5 in benefits for every $1 spent on high-quality home visiting.

Immediate and lasting benefits include reduced health and criminal justice costs, decreased dependence on welfare and increased employment.

Given that our governor and Legislature value efficient spending and crime prevention, we hope that next year’s budget will invest more in home visiting and other high-quality early childhood programs that save children’s lives and prevent us from spending more down the road.

We know in our hearts that abuse is preventable. Now it’s time to do something about it. Encourage your legislative candidates to pledge to invest in high-quality early childhood programs that support children and families and prevent child maltreatment and a lifetime of hurt.

Let’s continue to work collaboratively to end child abuse! And if you know or suspect a child is being abused, please call #SAFE from a cell phone or 1-855-333-SAFE (7233).

Kate Dixon is an education specialist at UNM Family Development Program.

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