The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal focused national media attention on a dark fact of American life: the nationwide epidemic of child abuse, neglect and endangerment.
Tragically, that case was just the tip of the iceberg.
Nearly 700,000 U.S. children were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in 2010. At least 1,560 of these children died a result.
The youngest children are the most at-risk for these types of deadly cases of abuse: one third of child abuse and neglect victims are under age 4, and almost half of child abuse and neglect fatalities were infants. Children are far more likely to be abused or neglected by a parent than any other person in their lives.
What's more, bad parenting has an undeniable tendency to pass from one generation to the next. One frequently-cited study, published in 1987 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry by Prof. Joan Kaufman and Dr. Edward Zigler Ph.D., estimates that a third of children with a history of abuse may maltreat their own children.
While most children who survive abuse or neglect do not grow up to become criminals, abuse and neglect do substantially increase the risk of later involvement in serious crime. One criminal justice researcher, Prof. Cathy Spatz Widom of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, found that approximately half of all juveniles arrested for delinquency had a history of abuse or neglect.
Without preventing child abuse, a cycle of violence is set in motion: one generation passes abuse and neglect on to the next.
The opportunity to reach families is especially important, precisely because the youngest children are most at-risk. Parenting is the biggest challenge many people will ever face, but for single and poor teen parents it can be overwhelming.
Fortunately, proven solutions exist to reach at-risk families, improve child safety and prevent harmful child abuse. High-quality voluntary home visiting services connect new and expectant parents with a nurse or other trained advisor who visits the family's home on a regular basis.
Home visitors help parents learn skills to promote healthy child development, to provide a child-safe environment and to become their child's first and best teacher. Providing guidance and support from trusted advisors to pregnant mothers and new parents can help prevent child abuse and neglect.
A study of the Nurse-Family Partnership, which pairs pregnant mothers with registered nurses from pregnancy until the child's second birthday, found children in non- participating families had twice as many incidents of abuse and neglect as children in participating families.
A study of the program's site in Memphis found that childhood injury and child mortality dropped in families who received the nurse home visits.
Acts of abuse or neglect rob children of their innocence; they also harm public safety and increase crime. Preventing child abuse and neglect can stop thousands of violent crimes.
The Nurse-Family Partnership study found that by age 15, youth whose families did not participate in the program had more than twice as many arrests as similar families who did not participate.
Child maltreatment has enormous costs for the U.S., including tens of billions each year to place victims of abuse or neglect in foster care. Voluntary home-visiting services offer a huge payoff by preventing crime and child abuse.
Researcher Steve Aos of the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that the Nurse- Family Partnership saved almost $21,000 for each family enrolled by reducing child abuse and neglect, later crime and other negative outcomes.
Law enforcement executives and survivors of violence are mobilizing to help break the cycle of violence. More than 1,560 members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids—one for every child abuse or neglect fatality in 2010—have rallied together through a nationwide letter urging Congress to support voluntary home visiting to help us break the cycle of abuse, neglect and violent crime.
When policymakers begin to listen to the men and women in law enforcement and begin to understand that these tragedies are preventable, we can build the willpower to protect children from abuse and neglect in a cost-effective way.
We shouldn't wait for more victims; we must act today.
Natasha O'Dell Archer, J.D., is National Director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. She welcomes comments from readers. Please visit www.fightcrime.org to learn more about the national campaign. Read the new report, “A Shock to the Conscience,” by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.