It is sadly ironic, but not surprising, that in the past week two high-profile child abuse cases have surfaced in Western Washington during national Child Abuse Prevention Month.
In Ocean Shores, a 21-year-old couple allegedly delivered their baby in a motel room, drowned it in a toilet and then discarded the body in a wooded area. In Pierce County, a 19-year-old faces life in prison if convicted of the murder and rape of a 2-year-old in what police called one of the worst cases of child abuse they have ever seen.
Clearly, the path to good parenting does not come naturally to everyone.
And, as the Thurston County Child Abuse Prevention Task Force is discovering, that small percentage of troubled parents generates an ever-widening cycle of addiction, crime and reoccurring intergenerational abuse.
Child abuse in the South Sound spiked to an all-time high in 2011, jumping by more than 50 percent in one year, and has remained near that level. Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim reports that child abuse cases reaching his office are up again for the first three months of 2013.
But there is hope and a strong community effort to stop child abuse.
The task force is using a variety of tools and resources to reduce the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in Thurston County — we have the third-highest number of documented adults with ACEs among all 39 counties.
A year ago, the task force implemented a successful national program called the Period of PURPLE Crying — PURPLE is an acronym for six helpful tips that educate parents about normal infant crying and its strong potential to trigger abusive responses in unsuspecting new mothers and fathers.
Both Olympia hospitals ask new parents to watch a video about how to remain calm and soothe a crying infant, and then present the new parent and baby with a purple cap knitted by South Sound volunteers as a useful and helpful reminder of the important lesson.
The Tumwater Police Department is also using the video. When parents, grandparents or other child caregivers seek help installing infant car seats, department officials ask them to watch it.
That program is creating broad awareness about how periods of increased crying can cause frustrations that might lead to shaking or otherwise injuring a baby.
Tumwater Detective Lt. Jay Mason is working with the Tumwater School District on a national pilot project to incorporate the video and other good parenting instructional materials into the high school health curriculum.
We hope these programs will start reversing the social stigma about parenting classes. We don’t need to invoke the cliche and issue parenting licenses, but every young person needs to know more than where babies come from and how to manage the labor during childbirth.
Most Lamaze or childbirth classes only take young couples up to the moment of birth, and focus primarily on the mother, not the father, who is statistically the more likely parent to commit child abuse.
Tunheim says his experience prosecuting child-abuse cases during more than a decade has convinced him that many of our criminal and social issues are inevitably linked. A mother who is abused as a child or suffers domestic violence as an adult starts self-medicating to dull the trauma, becomes addicted to substances that lead them to commit crimes and get involved with others caught in this deadly cycle of abuse.
It’s time to recognize the damage that begins with adverse childhood experiences, and that each one of us can play a part in promoting the social and emotional well being of children and families in our communities.
Our support today will eliminate tomorrow’s sad headlines of abuse and neglect.