In 1976, while a Medic in the Air Force, I worked as an orderly in a civilian hospital. In what was a rare instance, I was asked to spend the evening on the pediatric floor, sitting next to the bassinet of a six-month-old baby girl with a broken leg. At the time I was unaware of the surrounding circumstances. Sometime later I learned that the same baby was brought back to the hospital, DOA – she was a victim of child abuse.
Some experiences are seared in our memories. As pastors and ministry leaders we often find ourselves in the middle of the searing process; whether we have had the arduous task of reporting an instance of abuse or counseling the abused, now grown.
But, we are not without hope, for we know that the One who knits within the womb sees each one and takes note of their need (Psalms 10 and Psalms 139). And it is this seeing, steadfast love, found in the cross that compels us to advocate on behalf of these little ones and help their young mothers.
There are some things we take for granted when a baby is born. The added stress of caring for another life should be, by God’s design, softened by the presence of a spouse and the guidance of parents and extended family members. Unfortunately, today, among many young expectant mothers, the father of the child is not a supportive figure if he is involved at all.
To make matters worse, many of these young women have little or no support from their own parents. The young mothers are caught in a terrible cycle of irresponsible living. And, while not a guarantee, this lack of support often leads to sad futures for both mother and child.
Research shows that incidents of child abuse and neglect are lowest in households with married parents. In a long-term study of 644 families in upstate New York, children living with a single parent were two times more likely to be physically abused than children living with both parents. Overall, as many as 700,000 incidents of abuse and neglect are reported each year, and these figures tell only part of the story. The General Accounting Office estimates that as many as 500,000 additional incidents escape documentation each year, due to missing data and poor reporting procedures among other factors (see chart.)
A number of Christian leaders have become so concerned that we have created a new organization called Shepherding the Next Generation, which supports cost-effective ways to reduce abuse and neglect among children in poor, at-risk families. We have identified one highly successful strategy that can cut child abuse and neglect nearly in half. It’s called voluntary home visiting and many states are now supporting it.
What is Home Visiting?
It’s a strategy in which a parent (often a single mom) volunteers to have a professional or paraprofessional – frequently a registered nurse – come into the home and offer guidance and support so that the mother can become the skillful parent God intended her to be. Research has shown that pairing nurses with young, poor women experiencing their first pregnancy can be very effective in reducing child abuse and neglect and improving parenting skills.
The Nurse-Family Partnership in Elmira, New York is one such voluntary program that provides opportunities for parent coaching before a child is born and for up to two years after the birth. One extensive study of a Nurse-Family Partnership program found that children whose mothers participated in the program had 48 percent fewer reports of abuse or neglect than children of mothers in a control group. This means that home visiting cut child abuse and neglect nearly in half – a truly impressive result.
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
While we believe that these programs are both helpful and needed, it does not diminish what we hold to be true; namely that God designed the family as the best place for a child, where a father and a mother share the responsibilities of ensuring the health and wellbeing of each other and their children.
Nevertheless, today there are 23.8 million children who are not growing up in a two-parent family. Couple that number with the staggering fact that female-headed homes make up more than half of all of the families living in poverty. We as the church need to address this overwhelming need as we have faithfully addressed others in the past. The tremendous role that pregnancy-resource centers have had on this vulnerable population over the past 40 years is a vibrant example of the commitment that such a need demands.
Home visiting programs can play a dramatic role in ensuring that children at risk of abuse and neglect can grow and thrive because their mother is supported and taught essential parenting skills. The church continues to have an opportunity and a responsibility to offer help and hope so that a six-month-old in a bassinet with a broken leg is a rarity.
Dr. John K. Crupper is an ordained Southern Baptist minister who served in pastoral ministry for fourteen years and is now the national director of Shepherding the Next Generation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.
Publication date: August 10, 2011