Program battles rise in child abuse

by Bei Hu

A University program is bringing research results into classrooms and combating child abuse.
The Child Abuse Prevention Studies program is “the only program that we know of in the country that’s using the very recent knowledge we have about child abuse prevention,” said Jessica Toft, a University School of Social Work education specialist.
The program began in 1990 as a series of interdisciplinary courses after a survey of 1,200 Minnesota child-care professionals showed a strong demand for education in child abuse prevention.
Most of the 76 students enrolled in the program are already working in early childhood education and policy making, law or social work.
Program director Ann Ahlquist said occurrences of child abuse are growing at an alarming rate.
A 1994 nationwide study by 48 state child protective services agencies found that more than 1 million children were victims of child abuse and neglect, a 27 percent increase since 1990. More than 1,000 children were reported to have died from maltreatment in 43 states in 1994.
Still, researchers estimate that only one-fifth of child maltreatment instances are actually reported, Ahlquist said. Child abuse researcher Jim Hopper estimated that about one in four girls is sexually abused by age 14, and about one in six boys is sexually molested by age 16.
“Prevention is an emerging science,” Toft said. “We do not know a direct causal link of what causes abuse. We know a lot of contributing factors.”
Substance abuse, a lack of emotional communication in the family, poverty and parents who were themselves abused as children are all factors that may increase the chance of child abuse.
Students enrolled in the program take core courses which teach research methods and social policies concerning child maltreatment.
But, program staff members said it is the second level of courses that primarily help students develop abuse prevention skills such as risk assessment and interviewing susceptible family members.
“We know there are ways that we could be preventing child maltreatment. However, we have not successfully applied them,” Toft said.
Since last year, students at nine sites in Minnesota, including the University’s Morris campus, have accessed the courses though the University’s interactive television system. Using the television system, students can sit in classrooms and interact with students and instructors at other sites via television.
The program is currently expanding to the University’s Duluth campus and to sites in Wisconsin.