WITH THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN in foster care spiking and an inadequate number of foster parents available to provide a safe home, Massachusetts’ foster care system is overwhelmed.
The solution to the foster care problem is stopping child abuse and neglect in its tracks. We need to stem the tide of children entering foster care in the first place. Each week in Massachusetts, an average of 578 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.
Yes, you read that correctly — each week.
But as a state, we can make the collective decision to invest our dollars in programs that prevent child abuse from happening.
Our local policymakers had the great foresight to fund the Healthy Families Massachusetts program, a nationally-accredited in-home coaching program for first-time parents under the age of 21. Healthy Families home visitors partner with young parents across the state to help them build the skills they need to make sure their children have safe and healthy childhoods.
Over half of the young parents in the program were abused or neglected in their own childhoods. We know that those young parents are more apt to abuse or neglect their own children and, sadly, some do.
But, an article in this month’s American Journal of Public Health shows that when those young parents are connected to a Healthy Families home visitor, we can break the cycle of child abuse and neglect. A Tufts University evaluation showed that the small number of parents in the program who were reported to the Department of Children and Families were 32% less likely to have a second report than those in the control group. And, this is six years after graduating from the program.
In addition, the Tufts study found that the Healthy Families program reduced homelessness and dependence on cash assistance, increased parents’ education and employment, decreased parents’ emergency room use, and reduced maternal depression. The program currently costs the Commonwealth less than $500 per family per year, with the potential to lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings over the course of a child’s lifetime.
According to a Centers for Disease Control estimate, the total lifetime cost for one year of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in Massachusetts equals just over $8.4 billion. But the cost to society is far greater than the dollars and cents. Studies show that children who are abused or neglected struggle in school, have physical and mental challenges, and grow up to be adults with decreased earning capacity and shortened lifespans. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can stop child abuse before it happens.
The Healthy Families program model is proven effective and efficient, but there are more families in need than it can currently service. By increasing the investment in this program and opening it to parents up to age 25, we can reach more children and parents in need of help and keep kids out of the child protective service system.
Taking this proactive approach to child abuse will protect children from long-term pain and suffering while also using tax dollars more effectively.
Governor Baker recently declared April as Child Abuse Prevention month. There could not be a better time to recognize this issue and take decisive action to stop it. By investing in child abuse prevention programs like Healthy Families Massachusetts, we can change the lives of vulnerable children in Massachusetts so that no child ever has to experience the pain of abuse or neglect.
Suzin Bartley is the Executive Director of the Children’s Trust.