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Protecting children

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By Merrill Wolf

RALEIGH, N.C. — Baby Crawford, a Buncombe County newborn, died July 11, 2003, from exposure.

Three-month-old Jayson, of Onslow County, succumbed to abusive head trauma on May 6, 2003.

And Darwood, a 10-year-old from Nash County, died Dec. 7, 2003, from a gunshot wound.

These children – three of 30 on the list of North Carolina child-abuse fatalities in 2003 — represent the most dramatic instances of child abuse in the state.

But focusing only on individual tragedies like theirs amounts to too little, too late, according to a statewide task force that has been studying child abuse and maltreatment in North Carolina.

Publication of a series of reports outlining evidence-based approaches to child-abuse prevention is the first salvo in the group’s effort to bring new perspectives, leadership and resources to the problem, which likely affects hundreds of thousands of children and families in the state.

“The focus of our state as well as many others has been on intervening or treating after child abuse has occurred,” says Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, which published the new documents and plays a key role in the task force.

What is needed instead, she says, is to “support parents from the very beginning and make sure they have the skills necessary for happy, healthy parenting.”

With funding from the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment, Prevent Child Abuse undertook the nation’s first broad, systematic review of literature on effective ways to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The seven resulting reports offer advice to parents, professionals and policymakers, with an emphasis on the need for a holistic, pro-active approach to strengthening families.

One important step in reducing child maltreatment, Whiteside says, is to help struggling parents recognize they are not alone.

“Parenting is very difficult,” she says. “No one has training or information on how to do it. Parents need to know that it’s ok to ask for help.”

To that end, Prevent Child Abuse supports a statewide network of self-help groups led by parents and professionals called Circle of Parents.

The groups provide a much-needed outlet and support system to help parents develop coping mechanisms and parenting skills.

The new publications also deflate some conventional wisdom about protecting children and underscore the need for evidence-based approaches, Whiteside says.

Many schools, for example, attempt to curb sexual abuse of children by teaching them to identify abuse and to ask for help.

But research shows that such programs are not particularly effective in preventing child sex abuse, although they do increase its disclosure.

“Children shouldn’t be responsible for their own safety, and learning personal safety skills won’t necessarily protect them,” Whiteside says. “We need to make sure parents, caregivers and professionals have proper skills about how to communicate with children and keep them safe.”

The research that went into producing the new publication series has also informed the work of the statewide Child Abuse Prevention Task Force convened by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine.

Chaired by Carmen Hooker Odom, state secretary of health and human services, and Dr. Marian Earls, medical director of Guilford Child Health Inc., the 60-member task force includes legislators, state and local government agencies, children’s advocates, health professionals and others.

The group has been meeting for about a year, with the goal of developing strategies, support and leadership in North Carolina for child-abuse prevention, and plans to issue recommendations in June.

The group’s work already has led to one legislative proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Purcell, a retired pediatrician from Laurinburg.

That bill would allocate $250,000 for a new team within the state Division of Public Health that would lead and coordinate statewide child-abuse prevention efforts.

“There are many good initiatives across the state,” Whiteside says, “but no clear leadership in how it’s brought together.”

North Carolina now directs only $500,000 a year to child abuse prevention through the N.C. Children’s Trust Fund.

That group recently reviewed grant requests totaling three times that amount, Whiteside says.

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