April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. When it comes to prevention, where do we start? A critical first step is investing in efforts to strengthen and support families in need. The reality is that a vast majority of substantiated child abuse reports result from "neglect." The definition of neglect varies from state to state, but typically it means parents have difficulties meeting children's basic needs like food, health care, housing and other consequences of poverty. When families end up in the child welfare system, in the vast majority of cases, it's because they lack the resources to meet those basic needs. And that's where we can act as a community, a state and a nation to help. Valuing our children means choosing smart policies and effective initiatives that prevent both abuse and neglect. And when abuse or neglect happens, it means taking swift but thoughtful actions that give kids the best possible chance to grow up in a safe and supportive home and build successful adult lives.
Utah has room for improvement. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's national KIDS COUNT Databook, Utah had 12,830 substantiated cases of child neglect and abuse in 2010. That's nearly 300 school buses full of children.
But we already know how Utah can make progress. The first thing we must do is strengthen families. That means investing in initiatives that give new parents the skills and know-how they need to do a job none of us enter fully prepared. But it also means investing in initiatives that ensure children's needs are met, even when a tough economy, a disability or another family tragedy costs parents their jobs. Because research shows a connection between financial strain and child abuse, such investments will reduce the incidence of both neglect and abuse.
To deliver progress on prevention, our leaders in Utah and Washington, D.C., must both act.
Congress should approach prevention with the physician's maxim to first do no harm. The federal budget passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would cut critical investments that keep families afloat during tough times, including nutrition for children, anti-poverty tax credits, child care affordability and housing assistance for families at risk of homelessness. Those cuts would add to last year's federal budget "sequestration," which cut more than $125 million from federal child abuse and neglect prevention efforts. In so doing, the House budget could make an alarming problem worse. Washington also spends 10 times more on foster care than prevention, so Congress should consider giving states more flexibility to use federal funding for prevention. And by investing in early education, Congress can help today's children succeed in school and life, including as the next generation of parents.
Utah's children can never be too safe, and they can never have too many chances for success in life. But we know where to start. This Child Abuse Prevention Month — let's challenge our leaders to deliver real progress for kids.
Karen Crompton is president and CEO of Voices for Utah Children.