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Child abuse messages: They provoke and disturb - but don't work

Most of us have seen the image: the fearful, battered child and the accompanying stern message about the need to report child abuse. And if we haven't seen the ads, we've heard about the issue from the media with its lurid accounts of criminal atrocities, sexual predators and governmental ineptitude.

You'd think somebody would be doing something about a problem that is this big and visible. But while child abuse and neglect kills nearly 1,500 children annually and harms untold others, somehow prevention of this problem has never become a public policy priority.

The problem, new research says, is not lack of awareness, but too much awareness - of the wrong kind. All the publicity has obscured the most important message about child abuse-that it is preventable. Studies by the national organization Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA) have uncovered some important information that helps cast light on the problem.

The study says that the term "child abuse" brings to mind extreme harm - criminal, pathological behavior that is not preventable. And the far more prevalent problem of neglect is largely invisible. When neglect is considered, it too is perceived as confined to only the most troubled families, rather than as a pervasive challenge for all.

Other points in the study: Most people struggle with where to draw the line between "discipline" and "abuse." An example: spanking isn't a preferred disciplinary option but few are comfortable saying it shouldn't be done.

Americans are concerned about the nation's children, viewing them as "irresponsible and unlikely to make the country a better place in the future." The blame, they say, is with parents. (Presumably, other parents. Most people also think their own parenting is adequate.)

The public is largely misinformed about child development. Many define a variety of developmentally appropriate actions as "spoiling." Shifting the issue to a conversation about parenting doesn't really solve the problem. Most see parental "leniency" as being as big a concern as abuse.

Child advocates, some legislators and many parents here in the Washington have clearly gotten the message that has been made plain by brain researchers' findings: Families are a child's first teacher. Especially critical years for parents are those when they transition to parenthood and during a child's early years. It only makes good sense and good public policy to offer tools that can strengthen those families. But perhaps there is a reason these public policies are not moving forward the way we'd like: because they are out of synch with the misperceptions and confusion that prevail in the general public. Fortunately, other PCAA findings point the way out of this dilemma. For example: While parenting tops the list of priorities for adults, only about one in three say they felt prepared for parenthood.

The problem of abuse and neglect - misunderstood though it may be - ranks as "the number one public health problem facing this country," even when compared to drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Doors begin to open when the issue is reframed as being about "education and child development." For example, ambivalence about spanking dissipates when it is characterized as an ineffective means of accomplishing the goal of discipline, i.e., to teach self control.

When the issue of parenting education is framed as necessary because parents need training to be good teachers for their children, the biases related to helping "those (other) bad parents" largely goes away. Since the public readily accepts that parenting is a tough job that does not come naturally, there seems to be a ready audience for messages that build support for programs to educate parents and help connect families to communities.

In short, the research underlines what many in the field have been saying for a long time. It's not about "good" and "bad' parents" - it's about ALL of us needing help to be the best parents we can be. When ALL families are offered resources and supports to help them meet their parenting challenges (and who doesn't have them?), the stigma that is sometimes attached to taking a parenting class falls away. When we see ALL families as fundamentally wanting the best for their children, we'll find strengths there to build on, and successes to celebrate that deepen with every succeeding generation.

In time, the specter of abuse--the predatory bogeymen hiding behind every corner--will give way to the formal and informal support needed to ensure that all families are empowered to help their children. That's TRUE child abuse and neglect prevention. Joan Sharp is the Executive Director of the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect, an office of the governor dedicated to reducing child abuse and neglect in Washington. To comment on this story, contact editor@ParentMap.com.

For more information The research referenced is from "Reframing Child Abuse & Neglect for Increased Understanding & Engagement" © 2003 Prevent Child Abuse America. For an executive summary of the article, go to www.preventchildabuse.org. The Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect (WCPCAN) Web site (www.wcpcan.wa.gov) has resource information.

"From Neurons to King County Neighborhoods: The Science and Polices of Early Childhood Development" (www.metrokc.gov/health/reports/neurons.pdf) portrays a comprehensive picture of what families need to be successful in their most important job as their child's first teacher. Parent Trust for Washington Children (www.parenttrust.org) offers statewide support for parents and families via their toll-free Family Help Line, 800-932-HOPE (4673).

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