Cries for justice after a child is murdered may satisfy, but they don’t protect children. Ethan Bigham deserved a different kind of justice long before he was living with eight other people in a trailer in Marilla.
The time to protect children is before the abuse and trauma start. Before there are CPS investigations and trials. Before we point fingers at who should have known what when, we have an opportunity to prevent child abuse from starting.
As a nation and state, we resolutely refuse to use this chance, and children die as a result.
In 2016 there were over 5,000 confirmed cases of child abuse in Erie County, and this represents a fraction of the total instances. Any form of child abuse or neglect, as well as other childhood traumas like witnessing domestic violence or being raised by a chemically addicted parent, causes significant, long term harm for children.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study demonstrated that exposure to these childhood traumas, known as ACEs, has long-term impact on children’s physical, mental, social and financial health. This means child abuse, even “mild” abuse, causes more than tears and nightmares; it causes depression, addiction, diabetes and financial hardship. All child abuse is a matter of life and death.
The good news is that child abuse and ACE transmission is largely preventable. There is more than 40 years of evidence proving that intensive maternal home visiting programs, which pair the parents of infants with a trained expert in providing the emotional support, parenting skills and connections to community resources for the child’s first few years, significantly reduce parental addiction, parental poverty, child abuse, and a host of other bad outcomes for parents and children.
The bad news is that these programs are only available to a small fraction of the parents who qualify. Statewide, only about 5 percent of eligible parents have access to an evidence based program, and while the statistics in Erie County are slightly better than that, a staggering percentage of children are still denied help.
Talking about child abuse makes us uncomfortable, but talking about its prevention seems more upsetting. Discussing child abuse prevention requires us to see the nuances in the issue. It requires us to see its scope and impact. And it requires us to see how profoundly we are letting down our nation’s children.
Letters demanding justice for a dead child may salve the conscience of the letter writer and satisfy a community’s hunger for justice. But letters, phone calls and emails to our legislators in Albany demanding increased funding for Maternal Home Visiting programs have the potential to save children’s lives and futures and to transform communities. Until we shift our focus from things that make us feel good to things that protect children’s futures, more stories like Ethan’s are inevitable.
First published in the Buffalo News
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.