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Child Abuse Our Greatest Shame

April was National Child Abuse Prevention month, but it came and went with hardly any acknowledgement. Many people say they care about child abuse and neglect, but the lack of participation in awareness and prevention of this horrific crime is astounding.

Maybe it’s because it is difficult to hear and see the shocking stories of children beaten and deprived of basic care. Or maybe it’s because many don’t realize how prevalent child abuse and neglect really is.

But how many children need to be harmed before we say we won’t tolerate it anymore?

About 700,000 children are abused and/or neglected in this country every year; New Mexico’s rate of maltreatment is above the national average.

Of course, these numbers are based on cases that have been investigated. There are countless more instances of cruelty in homes throughout our communities that go unnoticed, unreported or unsubstantiated.

Perhaps most people don’t believe child maltreatment really affects them — that it is simply an unfortunate reality for a few strangers. But here’s why we should all care about child abuse and neglect prevention:

It saves lives and improves victims’ quality of life. Those children who do not die from abuse face a much higher risk of psychological disorders, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and criminal offense.

It saves taxpayers money. The estimated annual cost of child maltreatment in the U.S. is $104 billion. The fewer lives affected by maltreatment, the greater savings in social services, Medicaid, court costs, child protective services, foster care, special education and unemployment compensation.

It improves graduation rates and school performance. Children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to drop out of high school and have lower cognitive performance.

It helps the economy. Children who are provided with proper care and attention are more likely to become productive adults.

It reduces crime. Maltreated children are much more likely to be arrested as juveniles and adults, and to commit a violent crime.

It can stop the cycle of abuse.

Our society’s current system of addressing child maltreatment is to intervene only after a child has been harmed enough to warrant a report. While children who are physically abused may get help quickly once someone notices harm to their bodies, children who experience emotional or sexual abuse, or neglect, could suffer for years without intervention.

This remedial approach is obviously ineffective at preventing the consequences caused by maltreatment. In other words, the damage has already been done.

A major cultural change in the way we view parenthood is necessary to proactively address the senseless crime of child maltreatment. This requires that we start to truly value thorough, thoughtful preparation for pregnancy and parenthood. States must budget appropriately for family planning services, especially for the most at-risk individuals.

Other essential tasks include expanded substance abuse prevention and treatment (about 75 percent of perpetrators have a history of substance abuse) and evidence-based parenting and relationship education programs.

We have laws to protect us from myriad risks, yet one of the greatest risks of all is bringing a life into the world without proper preparation, skills, resources and support. Legislators must get innovative and pass laws that will protect children and society from this danger.

In the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, about 3,000 people lost their lives and the country was justifiably outraged. Every year more than 1,700 American children are killed as a result of abuse and neglect, and many of us are unaware or apathetic.

We must stop accepting child maltreatment as a fact of life and start treating parenthood as the privilege it is. This can happen only if legislators and average citizens alike do their part to intervene before a child is harmed.

Let’s get to work this year so that by next April, National Child Abuse Prevention month will get the attention it rightly deserves.