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Emily Piper: Prevention key to stopping abuse, neglect

Far too often, children die or are seriously injured at the hands of those who are meant to love and care for them. And our first question is always, "Why?" Why did this happen? Why would someone hurt a child? Why didn't someone do something to help?

Many of us shake our heads in despair, believing little was done and little will be done in the future in heartbreaking situations like these. When 25,000 children are abused and neglected in Minnesota in a year, we have a serious problem. When even one of those children dies, it's a tragedy. Sadly, nearly half of abuse and neglect victims are children age five and under — those who are least able to defend themselves.

Families, communities, neighborhoods and government have the power to stop these tragedies. Prevention is the key to ending child abuse and neglect. With it, we can stop people from striking, pushing, throwing, belittling, neglecting and sexually abusing children. With it, we can save children's lives.

In Minnesota, we are rethinking the way we handle child protection cases. We need to work with counties, tribes and community partners to build a child protection system focused on compassion for those who are struggling to raise their children and understanding of the triggers that can lead to abuse and neglect. When children are abused or neglected, counties and tribes must respond immediately. That is paramount. Yet, we also need to look beyond the current incident, back weeks, months and years. We must ask, "What could we have done to prevent this? What will we do to ensure children in Minnesota are safe in the future?"

Our work to prevent child abuse includes the Parent Support Outreach Program, a voluntary program that provides support to families experiencing stresses; Help Me Grow, a joint effort with the departments of Health and Education that helps families understand children's developmental milestones; and citizen review panels that help improve the child protection system statewide.

We are pursuing other promising practices. Strategies include involving parents in improving the child protection system, revising child maltreatment guidelines and best practices for 1,200 child protection workers statewide, convening a work group to determine how to best respond to families dealing with domestic violence and child maltreatment issues, and developing new tools to help social workers better meet the needs of children facing trauma in their lives.

This work shows progress, but we have a long way to go to build a child protection system focused on prevention. We don't need to wait to take action. There are steps each of us can take now to help struggling families. Maybe you are in the grocery store and see an adult who is upset with children who are acting out. Offer understanding words to the parents and friendly conversation to the kids. Find something positive to say about the children or parents. Avoid negative looks or comments that may increase adults' anger and make things worse.

Sometimes there are immediate threats to a child's safety. There are times when it is helpful to stay near children who are unattended until their caregiver returns. And if you suspect a child is in danger, report the situation to county social services or law enforcement officials.

These are simple tasks we can all practice, yet they are important first steps in prevention. I encourage you to reach out in your neighborhoods and communities to keep our kids safe.

Emily Piper is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.