We see and hear about violence and acts of violence every day. Some of these events have become so common that we no longer notice them, or are desensitized to their impact. Occasionally, an act of violence grabs our attention, and moves us to want to do something to change the situation.
You have probably asked yourself, “When should someone step in to protect a child from violence from a parent or caregiver?” What is your role and when are you overstepping your bounds? I heard a story recently that really made me pause and think about this very issue.
In a recent trip through an airport, a colleague witnessed two moms with young, fussy babies – both navigating a busy airport, and both looking exhausted and frustrated. One mother attempted to quiet her baby down by slapping the baby’s leg while saying, “Shut up. I said, shut up!” This resulted in the baby crying more and the mother becoming more upset. The other took a different approach, “Shhhhh. I know sweetheart. I’m tired too. We’re almost there.”
Replaying this in her mind, my colleague told me, “Both mothers were so similar. Both babies were about the same age and each mom had the same type of stroller and baby equipment. But their reactions couldn’t have been more different. It makes me wonder about the environments they may have grown up in, and what might have caused them to handle a crying baby the way they each did. I also thought about the lives their babies may have, one growing up in a nurturing environment and one where violence plays a role.”
We know from research done by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that these early childhood experiences are built into our bodies. Child abuse, neglect or violence can actually affect the development of a child’s brain – impacting the child now and for years to come. Our Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study shows a connection between child maltreatment and some of the nation’s worst health problems, including depression and heart disease.
The cost of child maltreatment impacts all of us, whether we are a survivor, personally know someone impacted by it, or have been fortunate enough not to experience violence as a child. In fact, the total lifetime cost of child maltreatment in just one year of confirmed cases (physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, and neglect) is about $124 billion to society at large. This includes costs associated with childhood health care, child welfare, and adult medical costs as well as criminal justice costs and productivity losses.
Each death due to child maltreatment had a lifetime cost of about $1.3 million, almost all of it in money that the child would have earned over a lifetime if he or she had lived. The lifetime cost for each victim of child maltreatment who lived was $210,012, which is comparable to other costly health conditions, such as stroke or type 2 diabetes.
Given this substantial economic burden, the benefits of prevention likely outweigh the costs for effective programs which underlie our goal – to stop child abuse and neglect from happening in the first place. Our key approach to preventing child maltreatment is through promoting safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between children and their parents or caregivers. By doing this, we can have a positive impact on more than just children. We have an opportunity to effect change in families, schools, neighborhoods, and our society. We can do this by fostering communities that support parents and take responsibility for preventing abuse, by helping develop supportive family environments, and by making sure parents have adequate housing and access to health care and social services.
We all have a role in supporting safe, stable and nurturing relationships. Visit www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment to learn more about what you can do in our community. And the next time you see a frustrated parent, maybe you can offer some words of encouragement or find another way to help.