What counts in child abuse prevention? A call out to public officials

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? It seems not only as though every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, but also that attention to social issues runs in cycles.

But that’s not true for me — child welfare and protection have been the center of my career in public administration, and I ask my colleagues to take a minute and hear me out.

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 inspiration 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 one state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” But she was mistaking investigation  for prevention and this is a mistake that too many of us make far too often.

Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard MPA candidate,  a high- ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. And of course the public should be pleased that the national reports are showing some small declines in the number of child abuse cases.  After all, state and federal tax dollars have been supporting child protection services systems for three decades now and we should expect to see some results.   But millions of kids are still at risk and the effects are awful.

Here’s my Child Abuse Prevention Month challenge to public administrators:  Along with counting how a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting a few other statistics:

  • Like how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby?
  • Or 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 adults in a community know how to recognize the sign that a pedophile is operating in their midst?
  • And how many courts determine the status of dependent children before a parent is jailed?
  • And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect.   The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that the lifetime cost from a single case of child maltreatment exceeds $210,000. Preventing child abuse is not only the right thing to do, it’s cost effective public policy.

Every aspect of public administration touches the lives of children and families, and we could all do a better job keeping children safe, families healthy and communities strong.