My first assignment as a young deputy prosecutor was with the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force. As a member of that unit, I often accompanied law enforcement when serving search warrants in drug investigations. While I saw many appalling situations, one in particular stands out in my memory. One day detectives served a search warrant at a house in Olympia where heroin was being used and sold. Amid the filth and chaos was a drug addicted mother and her three young daughters. Detectives found heroin and syringes lying out in the open and a machete under one girl’s bed. The girl told them that it was there to protect herself from, “mommy’s friends.” The mother was arrested and the girls taken into protective custody.
Fast forward a decade later. I was riding with an Olympia police officer on patrol duty downtown. The officer arrested a young woman for heroin possession and we were transporting her to the police station for processing. As they talked, the woman told the officer about her mother. Sounding familiar, I looked at her name and recognized it immediately. She was one of the girls in that drug house some 10 years earlier. She told us that she was a heroin addict and had been living on the streets for some time. Later, when I checked our records, I learned her younger sister was also prosecuted for drug possession.
Do kids become what they live? This girl grew up with drug addiction. She went on to become a drug addict herself and, like her mother, was arrested and prosecuted. She is only one example of what research now confirms: being abused or neglected substantially increases the odds of a child committing crimes later in life.
Unfortunately, Child Protective Services confirms that the number of child abuse reports is increasing in Thurston County. CPS caseworkers already have investigated more abuse allegations this year than in all of 2011. Of particular concern is the increasing severity of the cases involving physical abuse. My office has charged several cases involving the infliction of serious injuries or the death of a young child.
While a single cause is hard to pinpoint, I believe this alarming increase can be attributed to a variety of changing circumstances. More and more families are backsliding into poverty. Working parents cannot make enough to afford quality child care. Social service agencies struggle for funding to provide services to families in need.
Fortunately, we have services in Thurston County that are proven to prevent child abuse and neglect. One example is the Nurse-Family Partnership. This program pairs first-time low-income pregnant women with specially trained nurses who work with them during pregnancy and up to their child’s second birthday. Studies show that the rates of child abuse and neglect for families receiving these visits are half of that for families not in the program. Another is the Parents as Teachers home visiting program, which also reduces rates of abuse and neglect among program participants.
While we are fortunate to have both of these programs available in Thurston County, only a small portion of eligible families are served because of very limited resources. We as a community must recognize the importance of supporting parents, children and families as a critical long-term crime prevention strategy. I often think about those three little girls in that house and the young woman living on the streets. It serves as my constant reminder that by preventing abuse and neglect of children, we can spare them from the devastating consequences of their victimization, save taxpayer dollars and, in the long term, make our community safer.
Jon Tunheim is the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney and a member of The Olympian Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org