People are concerned about child abuse, which is good because it means our communities are doing what they can to protect children! Unfortunately, good intentions are getting lost amid wild reports of trafficking and conspiracy theories such as “#SaveTheChildren.”
Our lawmakers must enact policies that drive real results for children and reassure their constituents across districts and states who genuinely want to ensure kids are safe.
We know what works. In prior generations, one in four women and one in six men said they had experienced sexual abuse during childhood. Thankfully, we’ve made progress against this scourge. One in 10 children reports that he or she has been abused today.
That number is still heartbreakingly high. Congress has the power to make sure no child is abused again if it commits to funding the foundation of our country’s infrastructure for protecting kids: the Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs).
These 900 facilities serve more than two-thirds of U.S. counties, providing treatment, advocacy, and support for some 370,000 children who have experienced abuse. These kids have had their childhoods ripped away from them by all manner of mistreatment, ranging from neglect and physical abuse to drug endangerment, violence in the home, and sexual abuse.
Children’s Advocacy Centers rely on the federal government, in part, to fund their critical work. The lion’s share of federal dollars for CACs come from a piece of legislation called the Victims of Crime Act, which directs fines paid largely by white-collar criminals into a fund for victim-services organizations.
In recent years, the balance of the fund hit historic lows. Thankfully, Congress passed legislation last summer with overwhelming bipartisan support that will put the fund back on sound financial footing within a few years.
Unfortunately, Children’s Advocacy Centers—and the children they serve—can’t wait that long. Many of these centers have been struggling with tight budgets in the wake of the pandemic. Absent federal funding, some could close. Reopening one can take years.
Keeping these centers afloat could mean the difference between ending child abuse and accepting the status quo. That’s why it’s imperative that Congress include funding in the annual federal budget to bridge the shortfalls these centers are facing.
That money would help Children’s Advocacy Centers continue the crucial work they’re doing: providing forensic examinations, counseling, crisis intervention, and public education. It would also lay the groundwork for initiatives that could truly end child abuse.
Those initiatives are detailed in a new Blueprint to End Sexual Violence Against Children and Adolescents created by leading child advocacy organizations including the National Children’s Alliance, RAINN, Darkness to Light, and Together for Girls.
Using technology to fight child sexual abuse is at the heart of that blueprint. For example, lawmakers must enlist technology companies to crack down on images and videos of child sexual abuse that perpetrators post online. These images are no longer the province of clandestine overseas studios but in fact, have become ubiquitous in ordinary cases of child sexual abuse that Children’s Advocacy Centers address every single day.
New technologies could also help prevent abuse from happening in the first place. Artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and machine learning could enable law enforcement and child welfare officials to monitor potential abusers both online and in the physical world. Using that data, we could intervene early to stop child abuse or even the death of a child.
Individuals can help stop child abuse in their communities, too. The simplest and most fundamental action is to learn about signs of abuse—such as unexplained injuries, changes in behavior, and fear of going home—and to report suspected cases to local authorities.
People can also donate and volunteer at their local Children’s Advocacy Center—and rally their family and friends to do so. The National Children’s Alliance website has a search tool that people can use to find the center nearest to them.
Finally, everyone who cares about protecting children should contact their political representatives to support funding for Children’s Advocacy Centers, both now and in the future.
These centers are where policy and technology will be translated into on-the-ground progress. If we’re able to integrate current prevention efforts with new opportunities offered by big data, hundreds of thousands of children will be better off. To eradicate child abuse altogether and give kids their childhoods back, they need congressional action—and federal dollars.
As lawmakers weigh their spending priorities for 2022 and beyond, they must make sure ending child abuse is at the top of their list. Our children’s future depends on it.
Teresa Huizar is CEO of National Children’s Alliance (nationalchildrensalliance.org).
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