An Investment in Child Abuse Prevention Saves Money and Lives

Make a difference by advocating for community training of parents, caregivers and adults who work with kids.

We live in a very busy world. The idea of taking the time to learn about protecting children from child abuse may feel like just one more thing we don't have time to do. Especially if it feels like it isn't our problem.

The truth is that child abuse in our community, whether in our own home, at our neighbor's house or in community settings, is like a toxin in the water supply. It affects us all. In the U.S. each year, there are about 800,000 cases of child maltreatment. All carry an enormous cost for both victims and the community as a whole.

The Memphis Child Advocacy Center houses the multi-agency team that provides investigation, intervention and prosecution in cases of alleged sexual abuse and severe physical abuse. Last year, nearly 1,200 children and their families received services at the center.

Child sexual abuse is a substantial but often silent danger. Nationally, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Shelby County has the highest number of reported child sexual abuse cases in Tennessee.

It is tempting to believe that child abuse won't occur in your neighborhood, or at your child's day care, school, sports league, after-school setting or place of worship. But that belief may be the very thing that puts your child at greater risk. In 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, offenders are known by the child. This includes coaches, mentors, counselors, clergy and teachers -- and very often family members.

Severe physical abuse is also a significant threat to our community's children, especially those who are the most likely to die as a result of physical abuse: kids under age 4.

In 2008, 1,770 children died in the United States as a result of verified abuse and neglect, according to the CDC.

When a child dies in Shelby County because of abuse or neglect by a caregiver, a special flag flies at the Child Advocacy Center on Poplar Avenue. The Children's Memorial Flag has been raised for 40 children since 2005. Ninety-two percent of these children were age 4 or younger, with the majority of those in their first two years of life.

Abuse of any kind in the earliest years of life is particularly traumatic, because children at such a young age do not have the cognitive and verbal skills to process what has happened to them. The traumatic event is stored in memory in the brain, and the only tools such a young child has to deal with that trauma are emotional -- as opposed to cognitive -- which can manifest as unhealthy behaviors later in life.

Maltreatment in early childhood can result in learning difficulties, physical problems, mental illness and difficulty interpreting and responding appropriately to perceived threats. It is no wonder that some adults abused as children seem "hard-wired" for dangerous relationships and self-destructive behavior.

We know that kids are amazingly resilient. The brain can, to a certain extent, self-correct. An abused child who is given the experience of a nurturing, safe environment has a real chance to learn healthy ways to understand and respond to the world, and become a healthy adult.

However, when sexual or physical violence continues without intervention, the amount of therapy and support needed for healing is exponentially greater. Sometimes people never recover.

The cost to our community is also extensive.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates the immediate and tangible costs of a single incident of substantiated child sexual abuse to be more than $14,000. In Shelby County, this translates into an estimated $8 million annually.

Those are just immediate costs. Adults who experience maltreatment as children are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs. Physically abused children have higher drop-out rates, are at greater risk of being arrested as juveniles, and are more likely to be involved in violent crime as adults. Sixty percent of first teen pregnancies are preceded by an incident of child sexual abuse.

When a community invests in effective, strategic prevention, it saves lives and it saves money.

One example of effective prevention is the Child Advocacy Center's sexual abuse prevention initiative, which features the Stewards of Children training for parents and other adults who care for children. Participants learn when to report suspected abuse, find out how to talk to their kids about abuse, and become advocates for policy changes that keep our kids safe in community settings.

If our community takes action, we can create a revolution. You can make a difference by advocating for community-wide training of parents, caregivers, and all adults who work with kids. Ask your faith leaders, school administrators, and community organizations what type of policy and training is in place to keep kids safe.

Nancy Williams is executive director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center ( Contact her at

This is one in a series of monthly guest columns on the importance of public/private investment in early childhood. To download a copy of the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, visit The Urban Child Institute.

Originally appeared in The Commercial Appeal at