Twenty-nine years ago, guest columnist Maggie Baker was shot and seriously wounded by a man who suffered significant abuse and neglect as a child. She argues that investing in programs that intervene in children's lives will change their lives and make society safer
EVERY August, I mark an anniversary. But it’s not something I celebrate. Twenty-nine years ago, I was shot three times in the left chest at point blank range with a .357-caliber magnum and left for dead.
I was just trying to get home from work — from my job as a critical-care nurse at University Hospital. At midnight, I exited the freeway onto a two-lane road with woods on both sides and no streetlights. Within seconds, I was forced off the road, and a “concerned” man was urging me to get out of my car because of a “gas leak.”
But something wasn’t right. I refused to get out. I put the car into gear and let out the clutch; he opened fire. As I drove away, bleeding profusely and drowning in my own blood, he emptied the rest of the revolver, but the bullets didn’t finish me off. He was eventually arrested and charged with attempted homicide.
A year later, he was convicted on this charge and, a year after that, was also convicted of the rape-murder of another young woman who came out of her job late one night in the University District.
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As we prepared for trial, we learned about this paroled serial rapist turned serial killer. From extensive records about his social history, we learned that, as a child, this man was subjected to significant neglect and abuse.
Since the attack, I have dedicated much of my life to finding ways to identify and prevent the causes of violent behavior. One fact is clear: many of the individuals who develop violent tendencies were abused or neglected as children.
Most abused and neglected children do not grow up to be serial killers — or commit any violent crime, for that matter. But being abused and neglected greatly increases the risk that they will perpetuate the violence experienced as children. Abused or neglected kids are more likely to abuse or neglect their own children, creating a cycle of violence that can continue over generations.
In Washington state, more than 6,700 children were confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect in 2008. The actual number may be three times as high, because so many cases go unreported.
The smartest and most cost-effective way to break the cycle of violence is to prevent children from being abused or neglected in the first place. Research shows that among the most effective approaches are intensive home-visiting programs.
Voluntary home-visiting programs employ trained professionals to help at-risk parents understand the developmental needs of their infants and young children and ensure they receive a safe and healthy start in life.
Parents learn to promote their child’s social and cognitive development, respond sensitively to their children and avoid inappropriate discipline. One rigorously evaluated program, the Nurse-Family Partnership, cut child abuse and neglect by nearly 50 percent in the families who participated, compared with those who didn’t receive the visits.
Unfortunately, home-visiting services are only available to a small fraction of families in Washington state due to lack of funding. However, new federal funding for home-visiting programs is available, and our state is in the process of applying for these funds. If our application is approved, many more families will have access to home-visiting programs.
I hope the governor and legislators will maintain funding for these vital services. Reducing cases of child abuse and neglect in our state could prevent many of the violent acts like the one I experienced years ago.
Every day, I move further away from this traumatic experience, but that memory will always be a part of me. And because of that memory, I’m convinced that we must prevent kids from being abused or neglected.
The safety of our community years from now depends on helping the most at-risk children today.
Maggie Baker is an associate professor in the Biobehavioral Nursing Department at the University of Washington School of Nursing