Compass: Child abuse must stop, and we all can contribute

By TREVOR STORRSApril 21, 2013 

In recognition of April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, it is important to remember that our future relies on the healthy growth and development of today's children. As adults and community members, we are responsible for ensuring all children have a safe, stable, nurturing, and healthy environment to thrive.

Recently, it was announced that Alaska is one of the healthiest places in the nation to give birth. However, the years to come are not so bright.

Alaska has one of the highest per capita rates of child abuse and neglect in the country. In 2011, Office of Children Services received more than 16,000 reports of harm to a child, and nearly 40 percent of those reports warranted additional assessment. Approximately 8.6 percent of Alaska's total child population experienced some form of trauma. Approximately one of every five Alaskan child deaths is related to child abuse or neglect, and nearly three out of four of these deaths occur in infants.

To overcome these staggering statistics, we need to empower all community members to be active participants in the lives of our children. The lives of our children and the prosperity of our state depend on our recognition that Alaska is faced with a major epidemic of child abuse and neglect, and that it is time to invest in primary prevention. Fail to act now and Alaska will continue to have some of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the nation and result in preventable lifelong struggles for Alaskans.

Research shows that the societal impacts of child abuse and neglect are major and lifelong. It impairs a child's physical, social and intellectual development resulting in increased risk of poor performance in school, mental health problems, substance abuse, problems with the law and serious long-term health problems. The financial toll of childhood trauma is as staggering as the social toll. Dealing with the immediate and long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect is estimated at $80 billion per year in the United States.

Working together, we can all increase the well-being of children and families. One of the key ways we can keep children safe is by strengthening families.

Research shows that when families possess the five protective factors, the risk for neglect and abuse diminish and positive outcomes for children, youth and families are promoted. The five protective factors are parental resilience, social connections, concrete support in times of need, knowledge of parenting and child development, and social and emotional competency of children.

By changing our value system to reflect these five protective factors we begin to change our expectations and policies that help us eliminate abuse.

There are many ways we can help build these protective factors. Small and simple things include talking to the children in your neighborhood, read a book to a child, or recognize a child for doing something good. Allow children the opportunity to interact with adults -- this helps build resilience. Offer to watch your friends' or siblings' children so they have the chance to relax. Volunteer to coach a local sports team or volunteer as a mentor. Ensure your work policies support families.

As a community, we can strengthen our families and ensure the success of our future by investing in our children and families from the start. Consistent decisions to support the needs of children are at the heart of a bright future.

Trevor Storrs is executive director of the Alaska Children's Trust, the lead state agency for the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

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