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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 8:37 AM

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Guest: How visits to families with young children helps law enforcement

Renewing federal funding for home visits for families with young children helps law enforcement, writes guest columnist John Urquhart.

Special to The Times

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AS the King County sheriff with nearly four decades of experience in law enforcement, I can tell you that virtually nothing is more troubling than being called to a residence and seeing children who are abused or neglected.

Too many of these children never recover from these early traumas, and many go on to become involved in crime in later years.

Fortunately, our lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have an opportunity to sustain an intervention that greatly reduces child abuse and neglect, enhances public safety and saves taxpayer dollars.

It’s known as the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program. It enables states, territories and tribes to offer voluntary home visits for young, inexperienced parents. With help from caring, registered nurses or other specially trained mentors, the parents learn how to better understand their children’s health needs, make their homes safe for kids, and manage the many stressful situations that arise with very young children.

The program requires states that receive funding to support home-visiting models that have been shown by research to be effective. One such model used extensively in Washington is the Nurse Family Partnership, which was developed to serve first-time mothers.

Through home visits from nurses, expectant mothers receive support needed for a healthy pregnancy and learn how to responsibly care for their children.

King County is one of 14 counties in Washington that uses the partnership with vulnerable, young families. Over half of these counties, including King County, rely on the federal funding to maintain the program.

Research shows voluntary home visits lead to several tangible impacts for communities and families. A long-term study of the Nurse Family Partnership found that children of mothers who participated were half as likely to be abused or neglected, and that participation reduced childhood injuries, emergency room visits and infant deaths.

It also found that children of mothers who didn’t participate had twice as many arrests by the age of 15 as children of those who did participate. By age 19, the children who did not participate had more than twice as many convictions.

These results should be important to everyone who cares about reducing child abuse and neglect, which almost 700,000 kids experienced in 2012, including more than 6,400 in Washington.

Research shows children who are abused or neglected are 30 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime as they grow older. They are also more likely to abuse their children, resulting in intergenerational cycles of abuse.

That’s bad news for taxpayers across the nation, given the $25 billion in annual costs for foster-care placements for victims of child abuse and neglect, and for those in Washington, who foot the bill for $842 million in corrections costs for more than 17,000 people locked up in our prisons and jails.

A far more appealing number is the $17,000 in savings to taxpayers for every family served by the Nurse Family Partnership, based on lower costs for crime, incarceration, welfare and other costs.

Despite these tangible impacts, the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program is in jeopardy. Created in 2010 and sustained by significant bipartisan support, the program is set to expire on Sept. 30.

Congress originally invested $1.5 billion over five years. By October, Washington state will have received $30 million from the program, which nonprofit Thrive by Five Washington used to raise an additional $6 million from private sources. King County has received $1.8 million of federal money.

Congress can take a vital step for protecting the program as it considers legislation that deals with physician-payment rules under Medicare during the next few weeks.

More than 1,600 members of the law-enforcement community signed a 2012 letter to Congress urging members to build on investments in home-visiting programs.

This support comes from our hearts as we grapple with the tragedies of child abuse and neglect we see every day, and from our minds as we champion programs that have a proven impact on the security of our communities.

John Urquhart is sheriff of King County.

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