April is Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month
: We can prevent lifelong harm to children
Friday, April 11, 2014 10:02 AM
Imagine two toddlers watching, wide-eyed, as their mother is handcuffed and taken away by police on drug charges in their meth-filled home. They're frightened, confused and traumatized. They don't understand what is happening or why they are going to live in another home with people they don't know as they enter the foster care system.
Sadly, this is a real-life scenario, and one that happens far more than we want to think about. But, we must think about it and take action - for children's sake.
This and other forms of child abuse and neglect can result in traumatic outcomes. Toxic stress due to child maltreatment can cause lifelong damage to children's brains, and severely affect their futures with the possibility of depression, suicide attempts, chronic illness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, domestic violence, social struggles, learning difficulties and other challenges looming closely.
Fortunately, research and real-life examples have shown us early intervention and prevention efforts work. It did for this family.
While her children were taken to a safe foster care setting, this mother faced a lengthy prison term and the inner turmoil of not knowing what decisions would be made about her children. She was offered the opportunity to participate in a shorter prison sentence and two-year drug rehabilitation program, which included in-patient treatment and a recovery facility. This is one of the programs the Children's Justice Initiative, a statewide collaborative between the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Judicial Branch, supports for those struggling with addiction.
She also participated in a weekly parent support group, supported by the department, and training to gain insight into raising her children in a healthy, safe environment. She earned her college degree and serves on an advisory board to help other struggling families. Best of all, those wide-eyed, frightened children are now safely home with a healthy, stable mother, who acknowledges the trauma she caused her children and is committed to caring for them.
When child protection cases come before the courts, judges are attuned to the needs of children and the impact that trauma has on their development. As they make decisions, judges view children's best interests as paramount by ensuring that children are safe from abuse and neglect, helping families provide for their children's needs, preserving relationships for children in out-of-home care while minimizing the number of disruptions for children, and, ultimately, ensuring that children receive appropriate, quality services to meet their physical, mental health, developmental and educational needs.
To prevent similar tragedies from happening to other children, and keep children out of the foster care system, we must continue to pursue early intervention and prevention efforts. Government plays a significant role but we count on you in our communities to help. We can offer programs and services-such as Parent Support Outreach, an early intervention support and services program, and Family Assessment Response, a strength-based, family-centered approach to responding to concerns for families reported to the child protection system - focused on building on families' strengths and keeping children safe at home. We can offer home visiting programs to women when they are pregnant and for the first two years after their children are born to promote children's healthy development. We can emphasize the importance of early learning through programs like Parent Aware, Minnesota's childcare and early learning rating system that helps parents find high quality programs to prepare children for kindergarten.
You can play an important role by supporting these programs and encouraging struggling parents to participate. You can volunteer your time with community organizations that serve struggling families and children. You can identify families under stress and lend a hand, recommend community resources and offer to care for children for an afternoon or evening. This kind of support in the community truly helps families reduce stress and prevents potential harm to children.
Together, we can prevent children from experiencing unnecessary trauma, enabling their brains to fully develop so they can lead healthy, productive lives.
Lorie S. Gildea is chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Lucinda Jesson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.