Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
What if the answer to solving the horrific problem of child abuse and neglect in New Mexico were readily within our reach?
That’s the conclusion reached in a new film from multi-Emmy-Award-winning Albuquerque producer/director Chris Schueler and associate producer Diane Berger in their documentary airing this week, “Everyone’s Business: Protecting Our Children.”
Schueler and Berger interviewed law enforcement officers, a children’s court judge, social workers, investigators, medical professionals, educators, researchers and others on the front line who regularly respond, treat or work with children and families in cases of abuse and neglect.
“Child abuse is 100 percent preventable and the things we need to do to prevent it are already being done, we’re just not doing it consistently and not doing it enough,” said Schueler.
When it’s all distilled, he said, experts point to five measures that, when implemented collectively and on a large scale, can turn the problem of child abuse around:
- Understanding the stressors families go through, whether it is poverty, unemployment, isolation or exhaustion, and how these stressors can ultimately cause adults to act out in inappropriate ways toward children.
- Early intervention to support families with stressors, as well as early intervention for to help prevent teen pregnancies, addictions and other adverse situations.
- Education on shaken baby injuries, so that everyone, particularly new parents, understands what it is and what causes it. Speaking in the documentary, Kathy Lopez Bushnell, director of Nursing at University of New Mexico Hospital, said shaken baby syndrome “is the number one cause of child abuse and death in children younger than 3 years of age.” Despite that, she noted that “almost 70 percent of our parents had never heard of it before.”
Professional training for law enforcement, first responders, teachers, clergy, social workers and others who work with children and need to understand and recognize the signs and behaviors of child abuse. Las Cruces is home to one of five Child Abuse Prevention Centers in the country that train these professionals.
- Home visits, “the big one, and the one we think can have the largest effect,” said Schueler. Home visits provide an opportunity for a nurse or other trained professional to touch upon all the other measures. When once-a-week home visits take place for three years, starting while the mother is pregnant, “you’ve got an incredible tool of support,” he said. “It’s the instruction manual for the baby.”
Schueler said the documentary has been five years in the making. Berger suggested it while taking a documentary film-making class from Schueler at Central New Mexico Community College. The two of them continued researching the topic and interviewing a host of people with expertise in different areas related to the topic.
Victor Vieth, director of the five Child Abuse Prevention Centers, said research shows that child abuse is a factor in nearly every social ill, from juvenile delinquency to crime, to poverty to drug and alcohol abuse. To get a handle on these, “you have to reduce child maltreatment,” he said. “We could save millions of children and literally hundreds of billions of dollars.”
According to Charles Sallee, deputy director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, the state spends about $113 million yearly on child protective services, “which is the negative outcomes at the back end of the system,” while spending far less “on the front end of the system.”
Children’s Court Judge John Romero said that he often hears people say that New Mexico is a poor state, and we can’t afford to invest in the resources required to combat and end child abuse.
“I think we’re being penny wise and pound foolish,” he said.
If we really believe that our children are our most valuable resource and we should invest in their futures, then “we need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “Spend it now or spend it later. You’re going to spend it.”