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Quick intervention is key to saving abused children

MY VIEW •ÊThe lives of Miranda Gaddis and Ashley Pond should teach us powerful, permanent lessons on acting early

As Miranda Gaddis's and Ashley Pond's lives so tragically illustrated, we must invest in prevention and early intervention programs that break the cycle of violence that passes from generation to generation. Why wait until something goes wrong?

We know what factors place a child at risk Ñ neglect, poverty, health issues, a parent in the criminal justice system, a parent with a history of drug abuse, antisocial behavior. This is not a mystery. Let me repeat, we know what kids are at risk and why.

We also know that intervening early is effective. Again, we know who is at risk. So why sit on our hands and wait for the first tragic incident to be reported? There's a lot of research to back this up, but it really is common sense.

There's a story among children advocates that basically says why keep picking up only the kids who have tumbled over the waterfalls and are in bad shape. Go to the top of the stream and see why the children are tumbling down the waterfall and do something about it.

Why are we not doing this? Why are we not intervening early to prevent the problems in the first place?

Some people say it's a matter of resources. OK, let's talk about money.

It costs $4,500 to $7,000 a year for programs such as the Portland Relief Nursery and Oregon's six other relief nurseries to intervene early and provide services to a high-risk child, from birth through age 3, and his or her family. Home visits, therapeutic classrooms, play therapy, counseling, parenting classes and respite care all work to keep the young child safe and assist the family in breaking the cycle of violence.

And it works. The Eugene Relief Nursery reports that 91 percent of children and families who receive services do not have another report of child abuse or neglect.

Now, if the folks in Salem and elsewhere do not make this kind of investment in prevention, let's look at where our money will continue to go. Foster care costs about $17,000 per year per child. Treating abused or neglected juveniles placed with the Oregon Youth Authority can cost $38,000 to $47,000 per year per person. Incarcerated adults in the Oregon state prison system cost an average of $24,500 per year. This is an important thing to remember because 20 percent of abused children end up in jail.

Talking about money does not reflect the personal anguish of lost childhoods and lost lives. But it's a way to get the point across that we must focus on prevention. As a community, let us stop wringing our hands and moaning like there is nothing that can be done. There is. It's called early intervention.

Thousands of young children right now are at high risk of abuse and neglect. What about them? Will we wait until they end up broken and bruised at the bottom of the waterfall? Or will we pull together to support prevention programs?

It's up to us. We will choose to be champions for children or we will choose to watch more terrible tragedies unfolding on the local news. But it's a choice. Let's do something or be prepared to deal with the consequences Ñ again.

Sheila Hale is executive director of Portland Relief Nursery, a nonprofit early intervention program for high-risk children in North Portland. Hale lives in Northwest Portland.