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Protecting the most vulnerable


As the tragedy that befalls too many children hit home in Iowa last week with the abduction, sexual assault and murder of 10-year-old Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids, some of the reactions were typical and not unexpected. One example of that emotional reaction was state Rep. James Van Fossen’s call for reinstatement of the death penalty. Taking that action might quench a thirst for vengeance, but would do little to protect other children from pedophiles.

With only a few weeks remaining until the legislative session ends, it’s unlikely any proposal to restore capital punishment will go anywhere this year. There are, however, things the Legislature can and should do to protect Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens. Lengthen the sentences of convicted child molesters. Require them to complete sex-offender treatment before they are released, even if they were “good” in prison and eligible for early release under the Iowa Department of Corrections’ “good time” provisions. Once they are released, require them to wear electronic monitoring devices.

Such measures are reactionary, but necessary when a child has been violated as Jetseta Gage was. Beyond that, policymakers should focus their attention on helping families sustain stable environments that predators can’t permeate. Though all children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, which seemingly has reached epidemic proportions, poverty is a great risk factor for almost every destructive condition that might affect a child.

A key to curbing child abuse of all kinds – sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse – is found in investing in families, beginning at a child’s birth. That means adequately funding early-childhood education initiatives, where children can thrive in a safe environment. It means adequately funding Medicaid. It means investing in programs that help mothers and fathers become better parents.

Studies show that for every dollar spent on the treatment of child abuse in the United States, only a penny is spent on its prevention. If resources are not invested in the prevention of child abuse in its various forms, significantly greater amounts of money will be needed to treat the consequences that arise later in life, including interpersonal difficulties, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and delinquency.

For all types of abuse, the goal of legislators should be to prevent it, not avenge it after the fact.

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