Shea Levin is director for Every Child Matters-Long Island, a nonprofit organization dedicated to children's issues.
The death of Florida toddler Caylee Anthony and the murder trial of her mother galvanized the nation. Shock and anger filled the news after last week's verdict. Long Islanders could be heard discussing the outcome on beaches, in supermarkets and in communities from Manhasset to Montauk.
We may never know what happened to Caylee. Although there was no proof that the toddler was abused, the case has shone a much-needed light on the vulnerability of young children, many of whom are abused. While they don't make headlines, there are numerous cases of substantiated child abuse on Long Island every year.
In 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the state's Office of Children & Family Services, child abuse reports reached epic highs on Long Island. The number of monthly cases topped 1,000 for the first time in Suffolk in March of that year. Islandwide, there were 16,735 reports of abuse and neglect, up from 14,750 in 2007.
How do we help the children who are at risk right here?
While we must always ensure there are enough Child Protective Service workers to handle the reports of abuse and neglect that flood into the Nassau and Suffolk offices, we also need to invest in preventive programs, to change behaviors before they become abuse cases.
That includes programs like the Parent-Child Home Program, which uses paraprofessionals from the community to help parents realize that they are their children's first and most important teachers. These home visitors are non-intimidating and help empower parents, allowing them to discover appropriate behavioral milestones, prepare their children for school success, and take pride in their commitment to their child's education.
The program on Long Island receives no state funding; instead, money comes from school districts, under Title 1, as well as from private foundations. The program provides a viable prevention and intervention model that supports young children and their parents in their homes, instead of in clinical settings.
Another is Head Start, which provides early childhood care and comprehensive social services like access to medical and dental care, nutrition counseling, and education for parents to help them raise their pre school-age children in a safe, nurturing manner. But Long Island is grossly underserved when it comes to Head Start; thousands of families are on waiting lists for the 32 facilities throughout Nassau and Suffolk. The need is greatest in low-wealth areas and places with high immigrant populations.
Community members, teachers, coaches and others who come into regular contact with children also need to be able to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect. Childhood Abuse Prevention Services, which has been Long Island's leading agency for preventing abuse and neglect for almost 30 years, lists some of the signs as nightmares and difficulty sleeping, a decline in school performance, a poor self image, difficulty concentrating, avoidance of home, self-destructive behavior, acting out in the classroom, difficulty forming new relationships and fear of certain adults.
Finally, in addition to being vigilant, we must use our power at the ballot box, to elect officials who put the needs of children first. Children don't have a powerful lobby in Albany or Washington; they depend on voters to ensure that budget cuts don't come down on their backs.
As the collective outrage over the Caylee Anthony case begins to dissipate, we must not let our passion to protect children disappear with it. We should take our energy and emotions for that Florida toddler and use them to help the children who need us, right here at home. Start by getting educated now, and continue in November by holding politicians accountable. Children need to be a political priority.