Forty years ago, something remarkable happened in Elmira, NY. Researcher Dr. David Olds demonstrated that with proper, intensive support, child abuse could be prevented. Not just stopped, but prevented from ever starting.
About twenty years after the Elmira study, another body of research, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study by the CDC, proved how significant the Elmira Studies truly were. The ACE study demonstrated that ten childhood traumas, including all forms of child abuse and neglect, as well as things like exposure to domestic violence and parental drug addiction, can cause permanent impairment in an adult’s physical, mental, social and financial health. Prior to the ACE study there was abundant evidence that child abuse and neglect were bad, but no one realized it rose to the level of public health crisis.
The most remarkable event in Elmira NY today is how an 8-month-old baby, who was placed in a trash bag and thrown out with the garbage, survived her ordeal. A shocking story that prompted much hand wringing and cries of “how can anyone do that to a baby?” Some are calling for New York’s Safe Haven laws, which allow mothers to abandon babies without legal consequence, to be amended
Nobody is talking about how we can protect children from abandonment, and worse. Nobody is calling for wide-scale implementation of the evidence based programs that prevent it from happening.
The most fundamental cause of non-sexual child abuse and neglect is the primary caregiver not properly bonding with their baby.*
Bonding is why most parents can nurture an infant through their years of screaming, stinking, and their constant demands. All without regard for any concrete reward for their parents love. We take it for granted that parents will connect with, nurture, love and respect these demanding little humans, and the process of attachment is usually visceral and overwhelming. It is glorified in our culture. When a parent fails to bond we don’t recognize it and don’t talk about it, unless, there are disastrous consequences. When there are disastrous consequences, we see them as isolated incidents caused by horrible people, not public policy failings.
Severe stress is the enemy of bonding. Significant stress comes from the parent’s circumstances; poverty, depression, domestic violence, and their past, like surviving abuse, neglect, or family instability. Research shows that there are standardized tools to assess a mother’s stress, enabling us to predict child abuse before it happens.*
What you can predict you can prevent. The Elmira studies show us how. Programs derived from theses studies, broadly known as Maternal Home Visiting programs, provide intensive help to high-risk parents, enabling them to improve their lives, connecting them with services like, chemical rehab, therapy, or help getting out of violent relationships. They also provide parenting education and emotional support.
These programs cost money; but the cost of providing this program for a year is less than one CPS investigation. As the child grows, so do the savings for the taxpayer. The programs reduce the cost of government in their first year. Preventing child abuse is cheaper than tolerating it; but tolerating it is our national norm.
Harriette M. Hoyt, the mother who put her baby in a trash bag, is a teenage mother, a recognized risk factor. As a 17-year-old mother of an 8-month-old baby, she is also a victim of sexual assault, another risk factor.
Somewhere in Harietta’s mind, her daughter was worthless, like garbage. Interestingly, she didn’t abandon her baby immediately after birth, and she didn’t kill the baby. She spent eight months trying to raise her. When she realized it wasn’t working she drove 30 minutes and deposited her in a specific location.
There is little research in the field of infant abandonment, but since most abandoned babies are found alive,** it appears mothers put some effort and compassion into their actions. It is an abominable choice for a mother to make; there is no question about that, but if we don’t provide mothers like Harietta with programs that put their own lives back on track, and protect their babies from trauma, children will be harmed. We wring our hands and marvel at how some people can harm a child. We’d be better off acknowledging the problem, causes, and the solutions.
New York, the birthplace of Maternal Home Visiting programs, makes these programs available to only 1 in every 20 eligible families. No state is doing much better.
Think about that for a minute. We have the potential to protect children, reduce taxpayer burdens, but we choose not to. We maintain the status quo.
Then again, it is much easier to blame mothers for being bad than understand the causes and investing in change.
Until we do children children will suffer.
*Prenatal prediction of child abuse and neglect: A prospective study, M.D.SolbrittMurphy(M.P.H.). Author links open the author workspace.BonnieOrkowM.S.W.Opens the author workspace. Author links open the author workspace.M.D.RayM. Nicola(M.H.S.A.) Child Abuse & Neglect
Volume 9, Issue 2, 1985, Pages 225-235
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.