Congress can help prevent child abuse

By:  Robert P. Casey, Jr.

I commend the York Daily Record's recent editorial on child abuse and child abuse prevention (June 13). The real impact on this scourge is made at the local, neighborhood and family level, and good work is being done by committed advocates in Pennsylvania.

There is overwhelming public support, in the face of unspeakable tragedy, to do more to protect children and support families. However, more can and should be done to provide states and communities with the resources and support needed to address this serious threat and reorient our systems and services towards prevention -- and Congress should lead the way.

In 2010, we can start by reauthorizing and adequately funding the Child Abuse Prevention and Reauthorization Act. CAPTA is the primary piece of national legislation that outlines the federal government's commitment to help states and communities improve their strategies in preventing and treating child abuse.

Passed in 1974, CAPTA supports progress by providing states with funds to use for prevention, as well as intervention, such as child protective services, community-based preventive services, data collection and research, training and program evaluation.

Reauthorizing CAPTA at full funding will help to ensure that states can help community members break the vicious cycle of violence begetting violence. It will help communities build upon programs that work and help as many children as possible.

One homegrown example of this is the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape's child sexual abuse prevention program. With support from a federal grant I secured, the Coalition launched a multimedia campaign across Pennsylvania in early June to bring its message to more people. Known as the HERO project, their educational and motivational campaign features radio and television ads that ask adults to step up and be a "hero" for a child whom they suspect may be a victim of sexual abuse by calling a 24-hour hotline.

The initiative, which began in Westmoreland County more than a decade ago, was hailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a model for other states. The campaign's message is a powerful reminder that one person can make a difference by being a voice for a child.

Another model that is supporting families in Pennsylvania, and helping to ensure child safety, is home visitation. Home visitation programs offer a variety of services to pregnant mothers and families with new babies and young children. These programs have been shown to improve parenting skills, lead to safer home environments, and improve child health and wellbeing.

Pennsylvania has been a national leader in embracing home visitation programs, and notably, evidence-based nurse visitation services, such as York County's Nurse-Family Partnership, have received national recognition as one of the most cost-effective investments in children. For instance, the President's Home Visitation Budget estimated that nurse home visitation saves Medicaid more than $650,000 over 10 years.

Up front federal investments in such programs can save lives and dollars. They can also shift us from a reactive response to a pro-active stance to better serve children and families. I was gratified that the recently passed health reform legislation will provide $1.5 billion in funding over 10 years for states to build upon home visitation initiatives. Earlier this month, $90 million of that funding was released to the states.

Progress is being made, but Congress must continue to make children and families a priority. By reauthorizing CAPTA -- and supporting proven, high-quality programs that improve children's safety, and wellbeing -- Congress can demonstrate it understands the commitment required to make a difference and reach more children.

Child abuse, like spousal abuse, is the ultimate betrayal. For those who commit these crimes, there must be vigorous prosecution and appropriate penalties. Prevention is the most effective strategy, and I look forward to working together with other elected officials, parents, teachers and child advocates to make sure we do more to protect our children. As the York community has reminded us, it is going to take all of us working together to be a voice for the voiceless.

Robert P. Casey Jr. represents Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate.