It’s Child Abuse Prevention Month: Do you know an Ashley Judd?

The woman seemed to have it all — beauty, talent, a show business pedigree, a high profile loving spouse. A few years ago she chose to disappear from public life and seek the answer for her unhappiness. She has emerged as an ambassador, spokesperson and hero to victims of sexual victimization of all kinds and with a degree from my alma mater, Harvard’s Kennedy School.

I saw Ms. Judd on TV as part of the book tour for her new autobiography, All That Is Bitter and Sweet. Judd shares her journey though awful memories of repeated sexual victimization. I become breathless with fury to learn that her pleas for help from the adults in her life were ignored.

One of the most difficult things a child victim can do is speak out. It is an act requiring bravery beyond imagination. The majority of perpetrators are known to or part of the family and the child knows at some level that relationships will forever be altered. Almost universally, victims feel as if they are to blame for some aspect of the abuse. These are among the huge emotional barriers a child must cross to seek help. It seems cruel beyond words to imagine a child taking that leap of faith only to find nothing on the other side.

Decades after child protective services became a routine part of public service in our country, after every state passed laws requiring people to report abuse, we are STILL living in a world where children have salt rubbed into their wounds of abuse by adults who look the other way.

I recall going into a school decades ago to interview a young girl who had called the sex-abuse helpline that I staffed. When the school secretary heard the name of the child we were looking for, her response was to ask if this was because of what her uncle had been doing to her. I could not then, and cannot now comprehend the cruelty of an adult sending a child home from school each day knowing she faced sexual assault.

Ashley Judd said that she learned an important lesson; to give the shame back to the abuser. I say shame on every adult who sees a child in pain and turns a blind eye.

Things are a little better now than they were all those years ago when I walked into that school; many schools do a great job helping their personnel know the proper response when they believe a child is a victim. I had hoped by now that we could spend Child Abuse Prevention Month focused on REAL prevention, like supporting community norms that do not tolerate the sexualizing of children, or ensuring that parents have access to good information about how to teach their children about healthy sexuality and keeping lines of communication wide open, or promoting evidenced based prevention strategies.

But if you know a child bearing the pain of abuse, honor Child Abuse Prevention Month by helping him or her get help. And then support efforts in your community for real prevention programs.

Real Prevention………

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? Every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, and we all have a really short attention span. Child abuse and neglect seem to be under the radar right now. We can all be thankful  when we have a week or month  without reports of  tragic deaths or damning reports of bad decisions by  public agencies.   But lately, not a week goes by that another person in the spotlight reveals a childhood histort of sexual abuse —  movies stars, CNN reporters,  sports heroes — .  Thier honesty reveals that no one is immune; thank goodness for thier courage to make this  issue public.  I have an instinctual response to scream as loud as I can every year as April approaches to remind every single person that  children are abused and violated daily, and less than 1/3 ever come to the attention of authorities, fewer yet get the help they need.

I capped more than two decades in public human services and child welfare work by spending six years as the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America (http:// I found amazing volunteers, professionals, philanthropists and public officials throughout our state who really believe in building stronger families and communities.

I left PCA-NJ  to study  at Harvard’s Kennedy School learn with and from the best and the brightest in public administration. One evening, I was in the audience for a panel discussion about performance management in the public sector that featured speakers from the offices of several governors. My lesson  came not from the stage, however, but from a fellow member of the audience.

While discussing how to use performance monitoring systems in public social service agencies to manage response times to reports of child abuse and caseload sizes, a representative from a Western state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” I am a dedicated advocate for prevention and yet I found this statement to be distressing in ways that eluded words. Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard student, a  high-ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. I looked over at him and finally found the words to explain my frustration. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

I fear that  in too many communities, people acknowledge child abuse prevention month by reminding people to  report suspected cases to authorities……Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. But real prevention is measured by  a great deal more than a decrease in the number of reports to Child Protection.

Along with counting how fast a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby? And how many new parents are served by a trained family support worker to help them through those confusing and sleep-deprived first few months of parenthood? And how many parents have a job paying a living wage from an employer with family-friendly policies? And how many child-care centers have the resources to offer parenting support groups? And how many schools understand the meaning of supporting a healthy sexual climate for their students and staff?  And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Here’s my basic metric for government: Is every child attached to at least one adult who has available all the resources it takes to raise a healthy, productive member of society?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect. From the cost of operating the child protection services in each state  to crowding our special-education programs and juvenile justice systems with victims, the maltreatment of our children brings immense human suffering and public costs. The resulting failed adult relationships, poor parenting skills and diminished aspirations caused by irreparable injury to vulnerable little egos are not limited to the low-income families more likely to come into contact with the public systems. We all suffer when families and communities fail their children.

Who is going to show that they  know the difference between fireproofing a home and dispatching a ladder truck? This April when we hear about Child Abuse Prevention Month,  in memory of martyred children named Faheem, Nixmarie, Jessica Lauren, Bill Z  and so many others, let’s think about also counting and doing the things that can make a difference;  supporting families and  strengthening communities.  Preventing the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of all children is a worthy goal — what do you need to do your part?