Chicago — Consider it Phase 2 of one of America's most pressing social challenges -- child abuse. After more than 20 years of identifying the problem and dealing with its causes, consequences, and treatments, professionals in the field are broadening their approach. They are putting strong emphasis on prevention and on gaining a wider network of support with the goal of reducing child abuse and neglect by 20 percent in the next five years.
``We are truly entering a new phase,'' said David Cunningham, director of Chapter Development for the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse in an interview. ``A prevention agenda is emerging -- a full and complete package of prevention programs. They will work; they will get the job done.''
Mr. Cunningham was one of the speakers at the Seventh National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers last week. The magnitude of the challenge of child abuse was evident in the size of the conference -- the first of its kind in nearly two years. About 3,000 professionals from across the country gathered for the three-day meeting.
During the conference, Mr. Cunningham outlined his group's goals. Among the components of the prevention campaign is a plan to reach all first-time parents in the nation with information on what to expect from parenthood -- and where to turn for help in times of trouble. School-age children will be taught how to protect themselves from abuse. The program also calls for the establishment of children's trust funds in all 50 states.
To increase support, the organization plans a widespread public awareness campaign and membership drive. Referring to ``the privilege of prevention,'' Mr. Cunningham said, ``I think we should be as aggressive about this as if we were running a presidential campaign. We're looking for the American public to turn out and say, `Child abuse is not going to happen in this society.' ''
Some conference-goers found reason for cautious optimism in a new study by Richard Gelles of the University of Rhode Island and Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire. Although reports of sexual abuse of children continue to rise, the two researchers found that physical violence against children in two-parent families may be declining. They noted that couples are marrying later, having fewer children, and raising their families in a more favorable economic climate than parents of 10 years ago.
Other speakers remained skeptical. ``Most of my patients are not from intact families,'' said Frederick C. Green, vice-president of Children's Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. ``Their economic situation is not improving. We have two societies, and the story must reflect the totality of the problem, not just a part.''
But whether a family is intact or not, most participants shared the belief that an important priority must be to keep children in their own families wherever possible, and to reunite children with their families if they have been removed.
``The best place for a child to be reared is in his natural family,'' Dr. Green said. ``We must make certain that any program has the primary purpose of rehabilitating that family.''
To that end, participants emphasized a need for well-trained professionals to help children and their parents. ``The complexity of these issues is increasing,'' noted Jane N. Burnley, associate commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families in Washington, D.C. ``It is important that individuals who have the responsibility for making frontline decisions about our children have the appropriate training. Yet current data suggest that fewer than 25 percent of child welfare worker s have formal training in social work.''
Nevertheless, there has been progress over the past years, with more and more professionals alerted to the problem of child abuse. In contrast, ``just over two decades ago,'' Dr. Green observed, ``the experts in this field could have met in a telephone booth.''
Yet people were not the only growth industry here. In the exhibition hall hundreds of products related to the prevention and treatment of abuse -- books, T-shirts, educational and therapeutic games, and anatomically correct dolls -- attested to the complexity of the problem.
But despite the enormity of the work still ahead, the prevailing mood among participants was one of quiet hope and determination. ``Fatalism is the worst enemy of prevention,'' said Jack Calhoun, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington, D.C. ``Social norms can be changed. We must fervently believe that one person can begin a revolution.''
To make that revolution successful, of course, will require the collective efforts of many. ``No longer can it be said that the responsibility for abused children is the exclusive province of those in the helping professions who have been assigned specific roles in supporting, investigating, and treating,'' said James Cameron, executive director of the New York State Federation on Child Abuse and Neglect in Albany, N.Y. ``The responsibility for doing something about it belongs to all of us.''