Health care reform should include child abuse prevention, says D.A.

Even the most seasoned prosecutors are haunted by cases involving abused and neglected children. By the time those cases make it to court, the damage to innocent children is done and their lives are irrevocably changed.

While the majority of children who are abused go on to live normal lives and don’t abuse their own kids, the survivors of abuse and neglect will face significant hurdles for the rest of their lives. They are more likely to struggle in school, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Victims of abuse are also more likely to grow up to be adults who act violently, become abusers, and commit crimes.

In 2008, there were 41,125 officially confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in Massachusetts – more than enough to fill Fenway Park. Nationally, more than 1,700 children die from abuse and neglect each year. Child abuse is one of the leading causes of death for children age 4 and under.

There are, however, solutions available that not only reduce abuse and neglect, but also have substantial health improvement outcomes and cut future crime.

As Congress tackles the issue of health care reform, Senator John Kerry and his Senate Finance Committee colleagues can take tremendous steps to reduce child abuse and neglect by including President Obama’s proposal for new federal funding for evidence-based home visiting programs in any reform package.

Voluntary home-visiting programs provide trained professionals to work with at-risk, first-time expectant mothers and new parents to help them learn about children’s health and nutrition and avoid abusive behavior.

Long-term analysis of one program that provides intensive home visiting for at-risk new moms was shown to cut abuse and neglect in half, to cut the future arrests of kids by 60%, and to save more than $18,000 for every high-risk family they serve. It’s the very definition of a high-yield investment.

Right here in Massachusetts, home visiting is making a significant difference. The Healthy Families program, funded by Children’s Trust Fund, has been shown to reduce reports of child abuse among young mothers by 66 percent while increasing the rate of young mothers who complete high school, compared to similar populations in other states. Moreover, Healthy Families infants are on track developmentally despite research that shows children of young mothers to lag behind.

In the coming days, Senator John Kerry and members of the Senate Finance Committee will be deciding on which initiatives should be part of the larger health reform bill. It’s my hope, and the hope of law enforcement leaders across our Commonwealth, that Congress will make home-visiting a part of any health care legislation.

By doing so, it will be a preemptive strike against child abuse and neglect, safeguarding our communities and protecting those children who cannot protect themselves.

Daniel F. Conley is the District Attorney for Suffolk County.