Child abuse and neglect are serious and growing problems in Maine. In the past two years, the number of shaken-baby cases at Maine Medical Center alone has tripled. Since 1999, there have been 11 homicides of Maine children who died as a result of abuse or neglect. According to the recently released Kids Count annual report, in 2006 there were 3,664 victims of child abuse and neglect in Maine – a 2 percent increase since 2005. Much of Maine’s child abuse and neglect could have been avoided if parents were coached on how to deal with the struggles of raising a child.
Being a parent is a tough job. It’s loaded with stress, exhaustion and doubt. There’s so much to know about babies. Unfortunately, some new young parents never got the parenting they needed or don’t have responsible adults in their lives to help them safely raise their children. Having a trained professional guide these young at-risk parents can help put them on the right track.
Maine offers a number of home-visiting and parent-coaching programs, such as Healthy Families Maine and Parents as Teachers Too, to help parents by providing them with the skills to understand the health and nutrition needs of their newborns, identify early warning signs with their child, promote their child’s development, make their home safe for kids, and avoid discipline that can, with anger, turn into serious abuse. The voluntary programs are offered universally to all first-time, at-risk parents. Regular visits from nurses or other trained coaches typically begin during the mother’s pregnancy and can continue until the child begins kindergarten, if necessary.
Presently, Maine has invested almost $5 million in home-visiting programs, serving about half of all first-time parents. While the programs are voluntary, data shows that the majority of parents who choose to continue with home visits score “at risk” in the initial assessment. The data also show that very few families who have home visiting have any further involvement with child protective services.
Evidence-based studies of a similar program, the Nurse Family Partnership program, followed the children in their program for 15 years. This study showed that home-visiting programs could cut child abuse and neglect nearly in half and significantly reduce later crime. In fact, that study tells us that at-risk kids from families left out of a quality in-home visiting/coaching program had more than twice as many arrests as the children of mothers who received in-home parent coaching.
In-home parent coaching not only saves lives, it saves money. Congress now has an opportunity to reach many more at-risk parents with this proven crime-fighting approach. The Education Begins at Home Act would provide $500 million in federal grants over three years to states to support home-visiting or parent-coaching programs. We are fortunate in Maine that all four members of our congressional delegation are supporting this legislation and hope that, with their active encouragement, Congress will move quickly to adopt it. Cutting child abuse and neglect is not just the right thing to do – it is a proven way to cut future crime.
As the commissioner of public safety, and as the chief of the Maine State Police, we are proud of all of Maine law enforcement and the many organizations in the state that combat child abuse and neglect of Maine’s children. We recently participated in the fifth annual Blue Ribbon Relay at the State House to draw attention to the need for increased prevention of child abuse and neglect. The event is organized annually by the Maine Children’s Trust and the Child Abuse Prevention Councils of Maine. We commend Gov. John Baldacci for issuing a proclamation declaring April Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.
If you are a parent needing help, or if you are a concerned family member, friend or neighbor, you can dial 211. This free, statewide referral service provides all Maine residents nearly instant access to additional information on child care, counseling, health care and child abuse prevention services. Whether you are a longtime resident or new to Maine, we all have an obligation to protect Maine’s most vulnerable and most valuable residents – our children.
Anne Jordan is Maine’s commissioner of public safety. Patrick Fleming is chief of the Maine State Police. Both are members of Fight Crime: Invest In Kids.