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Focus on Prevention of Child Abuse Needed

Press Release

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A recent report by the Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy shows that, based on federal data, approximately one in 10 children in Montana is involved in reports of child abuse each year. Montana ranked worst in the nation.

Regardless of our state's ranking, one thing is clear: far too many children in our state suffer abuse.

As Montana's top law enforcement official and a former county attorney, I know the toll child abuse takes on our kids and our communities. Beyond the immediate harm it does, child abuse creates a cycle of violence that frequently leads to future crime. According to a report from the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, there are over 900,000 verified cases of child abuse and neglect in our nation each year. Research shows that an abnormally high percentage of those children will commit violent crimes.

Fortunately, some of those impacts can be reduced through mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the Boys and Girls Club. Mentors really do make a difference. National research has shown that young people paired with a mentor were:

* half as likely to begin illegal drug use,
* nearly one-third less likely to hit someone,
* 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol,
* and 53 percent less likely to skip school.

My office has helped facilitate a partnership between Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Montana Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association. Through this partnership, we're hoping Montana children won't need to wait to be matched with a caring adult. Local law enforcement officers can help fill the gap, develop positive relationships with at-risk children, and reduce their future workload.

Unfortunately, drug use is putting even more Montana kids at risk. According to the Child Protective Services office in Yellowstone County, drug use is a factor in 80 percent of the child abuse cases it investigates. Children in homes where parents use or manufacture methamphetamine are especially at risk.

One study has shown that 30 percent of children in homes where meth is manufactured test positive for the drug. Yet in Montana, we have only three residential recovery homes for drug-addicted women and their children.

Earlier this year, the Montana Legislature failed to support a bill that would have dedicated an additional $450,000 a year to community-based recovery homes for these families. Unfortunately, the legislature missed the boat on this one.

Treatment and prevention programs are proven to save money because they reduce crime, welfare and special education costs. And yet, despite the many benefits of preventing child abuse, programs designed to prevent and treat child abuse are not being funded at a level that meets the need. Since 1996, Congress has cut $1.7 billion from the Social Services Block Grant, the primary funding source for many of these programs.

Effectively preventing and treating child abuse requires the kinds of resources that only the federal government can provide. By restoring funding of the Social Services Block Grant, Congress can improve the safety and well being of Montana's kids and communities.

That's why the more than 2,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors who make up Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, myself included, are calling on Congress to do more to help us prevent child abuse.

We can break the cycle of violence caused by child abuse by being as committed to preventing it as we are to handling its consequences. That would make all our communities safer.

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