Keeping Kids Safe

DR. DEBORAH HARPER & r & & r & Let me share a little of my world with you. Each year, I am asked to examine about 100 children for alleged abuse. I work with a nurse practitioner and another pediatrician who each see the same number of children. That's a lot of kids in peril. Why can't we keep them safe and nurtured? We know how. There is research, there are programs, and there are countries that have eliminated child deaths from abuse. We have never had the will to do it as a community. But we can change. We can develop the will. We can put our money where our hearts are.

In 1989, when we were asked to vote for a 0.1 percent sales tax for children -- a tax supporting programs that had proven their worth -- our community voted "No." We voted "Yes" for the same amount to go to animal control. Twice. We voted "Yes" for the same amount to go to prisons. Twice. And we give tax breaks to encourage economic development. But let's talk about a different kind of economic development -- one that has been shown to return $25 for every dollar invested and that increases the stability of marriages, decreases Child Protective Services referrals and decreases criminal behavior. Let's invest in supporting families and their children.

Oops. Lost a lot of you there, didn't I? Started sounding like a tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart liberal. Sorry if you see it that way. What I am is a realist. I talk to these children; I see their wounds. I meet their families. I speak with the police, teachers, therapists, attorneys, social workers and the medical examiner. I'm a scientist. I look for evidence, not my feelings, when I want a cure.

First let's figure out the balance between privacy and protection. There is a national debate regarding international terrorism, between our safety and our civil rights; there also needs to be a community discussion regarding our children's safety versus our families' privacy.

There are some families we just don't know how to fix. We can identify them, but we fail to act. Instead we keep asking CPS and law enforcement to treat them with band-aids. We worry about invading the family's privacy. We need to remove these children from life-threatening danger and find nurturing, loving homes for them. How many months would you leave your baby in harm's way? Some of the adults in these families need to be where they cannot hurt people. That's why we pay for those prisons.

Most of these families we can help. Some of the research demonstrating this has been done in Spokane. These families don't need punishment. They need help.

Are you willing to lose some of your privacy and let a nurse in your home the first two weeks of your newborn's life? I am. When my second son was born, Spokane had a visiting nurse program for all newborns. Nurses who visit families in the first weeks of an infant's life have been shown to decrease subsequent CPS involvement, increase the stability of the mother-father relationship and decrease the infant's chances of being involved with law enforcement when they become adolescents. The high-risk families are identified and get more intensive visits over a longer period of time, but all new families get at least one visit. But that program ran out of money. By the time my third son came along, it had ceased to exist. This program returned more than $12 for every dollar invested. Let's restart a home-visit nursing program for everyone.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hat about new parents with fewer resources than I have? What about new parents who were abused and neglected as children? Spokane's own internationally recognized "Circle of Security" helps parents learn how to teach and nurture their children. United Way of Spokane is working with businesses, families and daycares here to train parents to be their children's best teachers, starting at birth. These programs, along with programs like Head Start, return close to $20 for every dollar invested. Let's help fund them.

What about parents who are already neglecting or abusing their children? Parents who are abusing alcohol and other drugs? "Partners With Families and Children" has nationally recognized evidence proving its wraparound services work. They create a team of professionals with the family at the center. The family can choose to add extended family, friends and other supports like their church if they wish. Partners With Families and Children provides chemical dependency and mental health treatment, fathering classes, parenting and attachment counseling, foster care assessments, legal assistance, medical exams, developmental assessments, employment help and food bank access. Let's offer our support.

There are pregnancy-prevention programs and parenting-education programs that work for teens. Let's get them into our schools. There are volunteer opportunities through SCAN, our schools, our religious groups, our neighborhoods and our workplaces. Let's be nosy neighbors and get effective help for families that we know are in trouble.

How much will it cost to fully fund these programs for all at-risk children in our state? About as much as the cost of one major league sports stadium.

There are only 60 months from birth to age 5. That's not a long time. It's not that much money. Let's make the investment.

Dr. Deborah Harper is a Spokane pediatrician. This guest editorial is part of the "Our Kids, Our Business" series, a month-long media effort to focus attention on child abuse issues. Our partners are the Spokesman-Review, KREM, KXLY and KHQ TV and KGA radio.