West Virginia Early Childhood Programs Help Create a Solid Start
Chief Dean Bailey explains how voluntary home visiting and other early learning programs help put kids on the path to success
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, so let’s talk about the importance of investing in programs that reduce cases of abuse and neglect and that strengthen families in the long term. As the Chief of Police for Beckley, West Virginia, I know from experience and research that reducing crime starts with preventative measures that put children and families on a path towards success.
In 2021, West Virginia had 6,094 child victims, or children for whom the state determined at least one maltreatment incident. West Virginia had a rate of 17 child victims per 1,000 children, the highest rate in the country and more than double the national average. Of those child victims, 1,036 were less than one year old. But child maltreatment isn’t just numbers—it’s a symptom of strained families who don’t have access to the resources and supports they need from their community.
Research shows us that those resources need to start early in a child’s life, and some of the most effective ways to give kids that great start are to offer voluntary home visiting programs and accessible, affordable child care.
Home visiting programs are voluntary, evidence-based programs that connect trained professionals like nurses, parent educators, or social workers with parents to offer support from pregnancy through the early years of a child’s life. This coaching helps families avoid harmful parenting practices that can lead to child maltreatment and long-term developmental issues. The longest running home visiting study demonstrated that, by age 15, children in the program had half as many verified incidents of maltreatment as children who didn’t participate. The program also reduced later criminal behavior in both the children and their mot hers.
But despite an increase in federal funding for home visiting programs last year, West Virginia’s contribution to home visiting has remained level at $1 million per year since 2013. That means only nine percent of high-priority West Virginia families receive home visiting services. To reach the other 91 percent of families who need community support, West Virginia must increase state funding for these vital, evidence-based programs.
Another way to strengthen families is to make affordable, high-quality child care more accessible to all. High-quality child care is a huge support to parents, allowing them to go to work and provide for their families while helping to alleviate some of the emotional and financial stress they may face. But 64 percent of West Virginians live in a child care desert, meaning there are at least three children for every licensed child care slot. This is the fourth highest rate in the nation. When families can find care, it’s very expensive. Center-based care for an infant costs an average of $10,140 per year, which is more expensive than in-state college tuition and fees ($8,733). Despite all this, West Virginia spends less on child care now than it did four years ago.
Child maltreatment can have serious, long-lasting implications for the wellbeing of children. Maltreated children can be two-to-six times more likely to engage in criminality in young adulthood compared to those who have not experienced maltreatment. As law enforcement leaders, we’re often the ones asked to deal with situations that could have been prevented. Preventing abuse and neglect through home visiting and strengthening families with high-quality child care can help families today and set kids on a path to success.
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