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By Jessa Cowdrey
Improving child well-being requires compassion, attention and action.
In April, Child Abuse Prevention Month, several prominent cases broke the hearts of communities across New Mexico. Five-year-old Sarah was beaten to death, 8-year-old Diamond was killed by a gunshot and an 11-month-old died because of abuse. All these cases were preventable.
Not long ago, babies grew up in large, extended families. Today, it is much different. The average child has one and a half meaningful adult relationships in their life, giving children fewer opportunities to develop the relationships they need to grow and thrive. Often both parents must work. Many households are headed by just one parent. Raising children is hard, and raising children in isolation is even harder. Additionally, many families experience intergenerational trauma caused by systemic racism and oppression.
How can we turn around this trend?
There are actions we can take that prevent or stop child abuse. Everyone has a role to play in strengthening the community fabric, so that all children are supported. We can support them through our day-to-day interactions in our community. We can support them by supporting their parents. We can support them by being alert to signs of abuse and reporting this to appropriate agencies. Finally, we can support children by making child well-being programs the norm, not the exception. Home visitation, parent education and other support programs offered through several local agencies are bringing life-changing success to New Mexico families.
Vigilance, knowledge and support
Any parent, regardless of age, culture, race or socio-economic status, might find himself or herself in a situation in which abuse occurs. Child abuse is the result of an accumulation and confluence of many factors, and preventing it requires a systemic shift that occurs long before the actual abuse might transpire.
Child abuse prevention centers on finding ways to support parents and families so children can live in nurturing and healthy homes. We must be vigilant, because we all have a role to play in keeping children safe.
Know the risk factors. While abuse and neglect can happen in all sectors of our community, families are at greater risk when substance abuse is involved, when families are isolated or when parents are dealing with extreme stress.
Learn the warning signs. If children have reoccurring bruises or cuts, exhibit anxious behavior as if something bad is going to happen, or seem afraid to go home, don’t turn a blind eye. If, in your gut, you feel a child is not getting what they need, contact local authorities and share your concern. Regardless of whether neglect or abuse is happening, a family in distress needs support.
Report suspected abuse or neglect. If you know or have a reasonable belief that a child is being abused or neglected, you need to contact the local authorities. Call the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department statewide hotline at 1-855-333-SAFE  or #SAFE from a cell phone. Remember that a child is helpless in these situations and is in need of adults to ensure their safety.
Reach out to children and parents in your community. Offer families encouragement and support where you can, and encourage them to take advantage of programs designed to help them.
To better understand the impact of home visiting, read Anna’s story.
Anna* moved to New Mexico to escape domestic violence. She was 13 weeks pregnant. She had no support and was homeless. She was able to stay with her cousin for a few days but needed to find permanent place to live.
Anna had limited access to food, no transportation and no prenatal care. She felt scared and hopeless. She received an invitation to enroll in home visiting, and through the program she was able to gain stability for her and her son.
Fast-forward two years. Anna attended all her prenatal appointments. Her son, Adam, was born with some medical needs requiring a feeding tube, but through enhanced referral and case management Adam was enrolled in early intervention services. Anna was able to schedule and attend all the doctor’s appointments for herself and her child.
Through this journey, Anna’s confidence grew. She became a fierce advocate for herself and her son. They obtained housing through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) and qualified for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid. Adam is now learning to eat on his own and is an energetic toddler. Anna has also learned about her son’s development and works with her home visitor on finances, priorities, scheduling appointments and more. Anna and Adam are living a more stable and secure life, thanks to home visiting.
We know about Anna and Adam’s success today. We do not know what would have happened had Anna not received the support she needed, and we don’t know if her experience would have resulted in child abuse. But we do know that when parents don’t have the loving and nurturing support they need, they can’t in turn give their children life-sustaining love and support.
Every family deserves support
Home visiting is a relatively new concept in the United States and New Mexico, but most industrialized nations outside the Unites States have widespread programs. Denmark established a home visiting law in 1937. France provides prenatal care and home visits, and in England every expecting parent is visited at home.
Because of New Mexico’s crisis in child well-being, home visiting needs to become the norm and not the exception. We should all be aware of the services and encourage all families with young children to enroll. If you are looking for resources or programs, see the box below or visit NewMexicoKids.org to find resources throughout the state.
In New Mexico we value family, culture, resilience, responsibility and respect. Early childhood programs like home visiting put these values into action. From this strong foundation, we can be confident that the next generation will be better off.
*Names of the mother and son were changed, and the photos are not of people referred to in this story.
Home Visitation and Other Support
Confident Parent Home Visiting Program: This program of Las Cumbres Community Services provides home-based information and support through weekly visits and referrals to outside services, for parents of children from prenatal to age 3. Call the Española Early Childhood Center at (505) 753-4123 or visit lascumbres-nm.org.
First Born Home Visiting Program: This program of the United Way of Santa Fe County is open to first-time parents, beginning any time in pregnancy or the child’s first two months of life, until age 3. Call (505) 819-0139 or email email@example.com.
Many Mothers: Trained volunteers are matched with parents to support the family through companionship and basic care. Call (505) 983-5984 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parent Education / Home Visiting Program: Offered through Presbyterian Medical Services, this program supports parents and caregivers of children through age 5, including adoptive and teen parents, and expectant parents. To learn more or to find a location near you, call 1-800-477-7633 or visit pmsnm.org/assets/uploads/HV-Application.pdf for an application.
NewMexicoKids Resource & Referral, a program of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, PullTogether.org and the University of New Mexico, maintains a database of licensed or registered childcare providers and other family supports. Go to newmexicokids.org/parents-and-families-3/home-visiting to search for programs by county or zip code.