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Another Voice: Maternal programs can help prevent child abuse

By Melanie Blow

When Denay Foster was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her infant daughter, VernayLah Laventure, the defense said Foster was “not equipped mentally to be a young mother.”

What no one said is that communities can choose to equip young mothers, or not to equip them. And when we choose not to, we choose to let children suffer and die.

It is fairly easy to determine whether or not a new mother is “equipped” for motherhood, based on her own childhood and the resources and support in her life. Mothers who aren’t equipped can usually become equipped with intensive help. Maternal home visiting programs like Healthy Families NY help new mothers bond with their babies, overcome the obstacles in their lives and learn to parent non-abusively.

These programs prevent abuse, poor school performance, juvenile delinquency and emergency room visits among children, and they decrease drug use, poverty and welfare utilization among mothers.

All of those are good things, but most of us don’t realize how important preventing abuse from starting is. Fatal abuse is almost always preceded by non-fatal abuse. So preventing abuse from starting will save lives. When mothers like Foster are slightly less brutal in their attacks, they may not kill a child, but cause traumatic brain injury, which will affect the child’s ability to learn, to manage his behavior and to live up to his potential.

Even abuse that doesn’t cause physical damage causes changes to a child’s immune system, brain and endocrine system, making the child more susceptible to physical illness, mental illness, addiction and poverty throughout life.

This means that much of the addiction, crime, violence and even physical illness we see today is related to child abuse, neglect and maltreatment. It doesn’t matter if the abuse stops; once it starts, it’s too late.

Healthy Families NY, along with other maternal home visiting programs, returns significant savings to taxpayers for every dollar invested. Unfortunately, no new dollars have been invested in over a decade, meaning these programs serve fewer and fewer people each year. This puts more and more children at risk.

It’s tragic when a baby in our community dies in the manner VernayLah did. It’s also tragic when we refuse to acknowledge that we continue to ignore tools that are proven to help prevent abuse.

Instead of shaking our heads at the next inevitable death, we need to wake up and fully fund these programs that deserve our attention. The future of our families across Western New York depends upon it, and we cannot let another child – or mother – down.

Melanie Blow is chief operating officer of the Stop Abuse Campaign in Rochester.

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