By Melanie Blow
As unfortunate as it is that Matthew Kuzdzal is likely to receive a new trial in the 2013 killing of his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son, Eain Brooks, no one is questioning the wisdom of having that trial. When a child is killed, we respond.
When a child is abused, we have a federally mandated system that responds to keep further instances of abuse from happening. But when children are born into an at-risk family, where abuse is predictable, 95 percent of the time they won’t receive the help that could prevent it.
Most of us see child abuse as an unimaginable act, but research shows it as very predictable. A parent who is without stable income or housing, a parent who was abused as a child, and a parent dealing with addiction, mental illness or domestic violence is much more likely to abuse, neglect, maltreat or poorly parent his or her child. But with intensive help, these things can be overcome.
Maternal home visiting programs, the biggest in New York being Healthy Families New York, do just this. They prevent abuse. They prevent the need for Child Protective Services involvement. They help prevent poor academic performance and delinquency. And they save taxpayer money.
But in New York, only 5 percent of eligible families have access to these programs.
Decades ago, when CPS was being developed, we didn’t realize what the implications of child abuse are. We thought it caused tears and nightmares and the occasional fatality.
The Adverse Childhood Experience study of the 1990s proved that child abuse is strongly linked to drug addiction, mental illness, violent crime (both as a victim and a perpetrator), poverty, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In other words, the most pernicious and costly problems in our society.
For more than a decade, New York’s investment in the maternal home visiting programs that prevent child abuse has been flat-funded. Preventing children from suffering a lifetime of ill effects has been seen as an expensive luxury.
But we spend money on the consequences of this abuse: treating opiate addiction, anti-poverty initiatives, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. And we spend money to try to imprison the people who murder children.
Our reluctance to prevent abuse – which thereby sentences staggering numbers of children to trauma and the significant consequences of it that mean they will live shorter, sicker lives – isn’t financial. Rather it is a lack of will.
All high-risk families that want help giving their children a better life, a life full of security and free of trauma, should have access to the maternal home visiting programs that prevent abuse. Our children deserve nothing less.
Melanie Blow is chief operating officer of the Stop Abuse Campaign in New York City.