April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year marks the 30th anniversary of this national effort to promote awareness of child abuse and neglect.
And while the incidence of child maltreatment has declined, the most recent data available indicates an estimated 681,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in 2011. Four-fifths of these children (78 percent) experienced neglect, 18 percent experienced physical abuse and 9 percent experienced sexual abuse.
Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Children and Families reports that in 2010, among maltreated children, 21,952 (91 percent) were found to have been neglected, 3,212 (13 percent) were physically abused and 801 (3 percent) were sexually abused. It should be noted that these numbers do not account for all incidents of maltreatment; they refer only to children who are known to child protection agencies.
Child abuse and neglect do not occur in a vacuum. Individual, family and social factors often play a role and shape the extent to which children are at risk. Issues such as parents’ lack of understanding of child development, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage, and community violence have all been identified as contributing to the incidence of child abuse and neglect.
Alternatively, protective factors such as parent-child attachment, social connections, parental resilience, and concrete support for parents can shield children from maltreatment. Therefore, we must not only focus on decreasing risk factors, but also give attention to increasing protective factors, many of which call for strengthening parents so they can provide nurturing and safe environments for their children. Just as we, as a community, have a responsibility to report suspicions of child maltreatment, we must also play a role in supporting the safety, permanency and well-being of children and their families.
Taking on this role requires an awareness of the connection between state investments and policies and child well-being. Last year, the Foundation for Child Development released a report that provides a state-by-state measure of the quality of children’s lives using the Child Well-Being Index. According to the report, there is a strong relationship between state tax rates, the size of state investments in children and children’s well-being. States with higher tax rates generate higher revenues and have higher rates of overall child well-being than states with lower tax rates.
Essentially, when states invest in children, children have better outcomes.
In his 2013 State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Deval Patrick called for increased revenue to support improvements in transportation and early education programs for children. Higher revenues are also necessary to bolster programs and services that encourage protective factors among families in our communities. Examples of such services include home visitation and early education programs, supportive housing, parent education and support groups, family resource centers, and violence prevention programs.
While a higher income tax rate is difficult to imagine in this challenging economic environment, we should consider such revenue-building opportunities as a way to invest in children’s well-being and support healthy families. The benefits of such an investment are revealed in Massachusetts’ ranking as second in the nation in overall child well-being. However, the need for increased revenue is supported by the fact that our children continue to experience a relatively high rate of maltreatment (18 per 1,000 children) and by recent budget cuts that have weakened the system of social supports intended to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month reminds us that prevention of child abuse and neglect requires promotion of child and family well-being. The public investments we make in our children today can make a difference in their lives now and in the future.
Lisa Johnson is an assistant professor in Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She has practiced in both the child welfare and health care fields.