I'm a biochemist by training. When people see me involved in the world of child abuse prevention, and they learn that fun fact about me, they often ask how a biochemist ended up wearing the various hats I wear in the interest of preventing child abuse. Sometimes I answer just by saying "biochemists have souls, too!", sometimes I come up with something else non-commital, but the fact that people ask me this, again and again, has really made me think.
First of all, EVERYONE should want to prevent child abuse, and EVERYONE should do what is in their power to prevent it. Most of the most pernicious problems in America are significantly exaserbated by the effects of chid abuse. Why is health care so expensive? Obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, drug addiction, mental illness and premature births are all HUGE contributors to the cost of health care. Child abuse is strongly, strongly linked to all six of those issues. In fact, the most significant study on the life long consiquences of child abuse and other childhood trauma was performed by a doctor who was studying obesity- specifically why a certain subset of obese people cannot maintain weight loss. One of this doctor's conculsions is that child abuse/trauma survivors are more likely to die from every leading cause of death in every age bracket than their non-abused peers. That means that as teenagers and young adults, abuse survivors are more likely to die from suicide and car accidents (the leading cause of death for young people) than their non-abused peers. In middle age, abuse survivors are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease (the leading cause of death in that age bracket) than their non-abused peers. Violent crime is strongly linked to child abuse, as is early pregnancy, academic failure and life below the poverty line. To me, this cluster of facts is one example of why partisan politics doesn't work- investing in child abuse prevention seems too simple for the Right to embrace, and not punitive enough for the Left. So most of the time, no investment is made, and children continue to suffer. The bare-bones, legally mandated costs of dealing with abused children are also staggering. Child Protective Services (or what ever other acronym is used, as it varies state by state) is not cheap, nor is foster care. But both seem like the deals of the century compared to residential placement of disturbed, abused youth, which is what happens with youth who cannot succeed in either their families or foster care.
So preventing child abuse saves money. OK, got it. In the current political climate, I feel like that's all I should need to say, as austerity and penny-pinching are the new buzz-words. Children are an investment in our society's future. But somehow, I feel like if that experssion is used any more, there will be talk of children being brokered to forgien investment firms and physically stuffed in portfolios. I know when I get my bi-annual reports on my 401k's performance I don't want to see finger-paint pictures in there. There has to be a reason, besides the purely financial, why we invest in preventing child abuse. And sometimes I tell this story when I'm trying to explain why.
When I was in college, I worked two summers at a nature-oriented day camp. One rainy day the kids couldn't go outside, so the other councelors and myself were forced to take them to the interpretive nature center that was on-site. Like most people who are paid to work with large numbers of children, I got into the habbit of constantly counting them, and within an hour I was one child short. After a quick scan of the room, I found him perched at the top of the stairs, clutching giant turkey feathers in each hand. I ran up to the top of the stairs and asked him what he was doing. He told me he was about to fly down the stairs- he had been flapping his fistfulls of feathers and had felt some lift, and was sure that he was going to be able to jump from the top stair and fly safely to the bottom. I told him he was welcome to practice flying, as long as he did it from the bottom stair. He agreed, and spent the rest of the day practicing.
The other councilors were surprised that he and I came to that agreement, and they asked me why I let him do that. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I let him do it because I didn't want to be the one to tell him he couldn't fly. When a child is abused, they are told in the most overwhelming way possible that they cannot fly. When we, as individuals and as a society don't do everything possible to prevent that abuse from happening, we are all joining the ranks of those who condone breaking and bending fragile wings into useless appendiges.