My Turn: Every 45 minutes, another Alaska child falls victim

Posted: Monday, April 27, 2009

Every 45.8 minutes, someone in Alaska reports child abuse or neglect. In 2008, more than 46 percent of those alleged victims were children age 6 and under. Those numbers should concern all Alaskans.

Nearly half of those children are not even old enough to be in first grade yet. Thousands of such reports come into the Office of Children's Services every year.

The Office of Children's Services staff and our partners around the state work not with these statistics but instead spend each day working with the families behind those numbers. During April, observed as Child Abuse Prevention Month around the country, it's a chance for us to talk about how each of us can make a difference to children at risk.

The goal is to help a family become a healthy, safe place for children. Our mandate is to help them do that in every way we possibly can.

Russian author Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy once wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

That truth, that there's no "one size fits all" approach to helping a family that is struggling, makes the job of a child protection worker particularly challenging. What assistance will most benefit a family? What are the unique issues adding to their problems? Does the community have the resources available to help the family grow stronger? And how can the OCS worker and community partners best provide help to make this a happy, thriving family?

We know risk factors for child abuse and neglect are greater in families in which a parent abuses alcohol or drugs, is isolated from family and friends, has anger issues, serious economic or housing problems, or mental illness.

We also know that child abuse or neglect actually changes who a child is, causing a long list of symptoms from anxiety and sleep problems to a lack of appropriate brain development and acting out sexually. A wide range of issues can plague victims into their adult years. And so the cycle continues.

Experts agree that child abuse and neglect are among our nation's most serious public health problems. We know that by working toward strengthening families, abuse and neglect can be prevented and our children can grow up to be healthy and productive adults.

In Alaska, we know that our children are our future. We owe them the best possible start we can give them. What that means for each of us is to pay attention to how families and children around us are doing. Mentor them, teach them and talk to them. And if you think a child is being abused or neglected, please call in a report.

The 24-hour number is 800-478-4444. And if you see a parent who is struggling, refer him or her to the Parent Line at 800-643-5437.

With all of us working together, perhaps another child won't be reported as abused or neglected less than an hour from now. It's a dream worth working toward, this month and during every other month of the year.

• Tammy Sandoval is director of Alaska's Office of Children's Services, a division of the Department of Health and Social Services. She lives in Anchorage.

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