I have seen a lot of tragedy in my years in law enforcement. One case that haunts me still is a week as a homicide detective with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office in which I had to investigate the deaths of three babies. Two of these innocent lives were lost as a result of child abuse.
After the death of one child, I went to the 16-year-old mother’s apartment to interview her. When I arrived I was told that she was at a movie with her friends. It was clear to me that this young mother had no grasp of the magnitude of the situation – the death of her child – and I realized that in this case there were really two victims: the baby who had died at the hand of his mother and the young mother herself who hadn’t a clue about how to take care of a child.
Situations such as this occur way too often. According to the Department of Social and Health Services, more than 5,500 reported cases of child abuse and neglect in Pierce County were investigated in 2012. Of these, 20 percent were “founded.” This means there were more than 1,000 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in our communities last year. This accounts for nearly 15 percent of all documented child abuse and neglect cases statewide.
The good news is that there are effective ways to address this problem. Research has shown that intensive, voluntary home-visiting programs can prevent child abuse and neglect, give kids the right start in life and reduce crime. Here in Washington, the Nurse-Family Partnership pairs nurses with young, poor women during their first pregnancy. The voluntary visits start before the birth of their child and last until the child is 2 years old.
Multiple studies of this program with randomized control groups have shown that children whose moms received the home visits were half as likely to be abused or neglected than those who did not receive the services.
More than 200 vulnerable young mothers and their babies are enrolled in the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Nurse-Family Partnership program. Based on the research, we can expect that as many as 100 children will not be victims of abuse or neglect as a result of their families’ participation in this program.
Unfortunately, as a result of federal funding cuts, the Health Department is proposing a significant reduction in programs that serve the poorest and most vulnerable families, including the Nurse-Family Partnership. This reduction to the program would mean 50 percent fewer families enrolled, resulting in the potential for increased incidents of child abuse and neglect.
My opinion – backed by the research – is that this is a penny-wise and pound-foolish solution. I appreciate the tough choices the Health Department administration and commissioners have to make, but I urge them to do whatever they can to minimize reductions to the Nurse-Family Partnership and work to establish stable, reliable long-term funding for this proven abuse-prevention program.
It’s a smart investment that will have an immediate benefit on vulnerable children and families, and a proven way to save taxpayer dollars for years to come.