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Editorial: Home visitation effort can help prevent child abuse

Apr. 07, 2012 @ 10:00 PM

How do people let this happen? That is the question we so often have when we read about child abuse and neglect cases. Whether it is a sensational national story such as the Penn State scandal or a local story about children found in horrible or dangerous conditions, we wonder why someone did not step in to prevent these crimes and situations.

Over time, those who work with children -- medical professionals, educators and others -- have been held more responsible for reporting suspected abuse, and the public has responded as well. But as advocates remind us during Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month this April, clearly more needs to be done.

This week in West Virginia, for example, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill that expands requirements for who must report suspected abuse and provides more training on recognizing the signs of child abuse. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear also issued a reminder to residents there that reporting child abuse and neglect is required under state law.

As the Penn State case shows, that is a critical responsibility for everyone, especially in cases of sexual abuse. But when looking at how to prevent abuse and neglect from happening in the first place, many experts suggest a stronger home visitation program is one of the most effective strategies.

A study done by the Pew Center for the States found that a good program of voluntary home visits to at-risk families can cut child abuse cases in half -- that means trained professionals meeting with families during pregnancies and the first three years of a child's life. Those early years are when so many child abuse cases occur.

As all parents know, kids don't come with instructions, and many young parents simply lack the knowledge, skills and support system to cope with the life changes and responsibilities that a new baby brings. A regular, but voluntary, home visitation program can make a big difference.

West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio all have such programs, but our state agencies only have the funding to reach a small portion of the at-risk families -- low-income households with infants or toddlers. Kentucky spends about $31 million a year on its project, more than the national average, and reaches about 10 percent of the state's at-risk homes, according to the Pew study. Ohio and West Virginia budget less (about $26 million and $3 million, respectively) and reach less than 5 percent of the homes in need.

This would seem to be a smart place to invest. Preventing the cycle of abuse and all the social costs that follow victims throughout their lives makes sense and deserves a bigger commitment.

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