My turn: We know how to prevent child abuse
By Rosie Allen Ryan
April, as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, offers us an important opportunity to consider how the well-being of today’s children is essential for the future success for our state. The future is all around us — newborn babies, preschool and school-age children and adolescents on the brink of adulthood. They are tomorrow’s leaders, parents and workers. The future of our state is inextricably tied to how we, as adults, work to foster their health and well-being. We know exactly what we need to do to help all children thrive. We must provide them with supportive, nurturing environments in all areas of their lives — at home, in school and in the community.
What does children’s healthy development, and specifically, brain development, have to do with ending child abuse? Plenty. Science tells us the experiences children have early in life actually build the architecture of their developing brains. Brains are built over time, just like houses. And, just as a well-built house requires a strong and stable framework, our children’s brains also need a strong structure for all of the development that follows.
Experiences of abuse and neglect cause “toxic stress” which damages the developing brain. Toxic stress is long lasting, happens without consistent supportive relationships, and leads to lifelong problems in learning and behavior, as well as in physical and mental health. In fact, new research through the ACE study shows that toxic stress weakens children’s defense systems against diseases over time. Too often childhood toxic stress leads to adult diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression.
When early experiences are positive the architecture of the brain can build itself from the bottom up in a healthy way. Children of all ages naturally reach out to the adults in their lives. When adults respond in a positive, nurturing way, it enhances brain development. We have the tools to encourage healthy brain development in all children. Evidence-based and promising family strengthening programs have been proven to protect children from toxic stress by encouraging strong positive interactions with the key adults in their lives.
In 2007, Prevent Child Abuse America estimated child maltreatment costs our nation $103 billion annually in direct and indirect costs. In North Carolina alone, more than 120,000 children are reported abused or neglected each year. When you consider the direct costs of hospitalization, mental health services, the child welfare system and law enforcement and add the indirect costs of special education, long-term health problems, incarceration and loss of income, you can see North Carolina’s share of these costs is immense. Isn’t it time we reduced these costs?
Evidence-based programs can help us do that. Evidence-based programs have been thoroughly tested in randomized control group studies and are proven to work. They have been shown to be effective in increasing positive interactions between parents and children leading to reductions in behavior problems, enhanced family communication and problem solving, as well as reductions in parental stress.
Evidence-based programs ensure communities get what they paid for through systems that verify the promised outcomes are achieved today, leading to more positive outcomes for communities in the future. Children who have supportive, nurturing relationships are more likely to grow up to be nurturing parents, healthy, productive workers and responsible citizens.
Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina’s goal is for all children to have the support they need to thrive and grow up to be contributing members of their communities. We recognize that raising children is not easy and all families benefit from support and guidance. We work with communities throughout our state to help them implement evidence-based and promising programs for families. More than 3,000 families benefitted from these programs last year with positive results. Can you imagine the implications if more families had access to these programs?
In recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month, let’s celebrate the many communities in our state that are working to create positive, healthy environments that support children’s development. With additional private and public support, we can continue working together to bring evidence-based and promising practices to all communities in our state. Please join us in supporting these vital programs that work to end child abuse and neglect in our state, and create a more prosperous, positive future for us all.
Rosie Allen Ryan is president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina and former director of Smart Start Rowan.
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