This holiday season, our family dinner table has three empty chairs, not because my sister, her husband and their daughter are at another gathering somewhere else. Twenty-two years ago, my beautiful sister and her family were victims of a violent assault and murder in their Wilmette home.
The offender was a serial killer in the making. He came from privilege. Whenever he got in trouble, his parents fixed it. He planned the murders for months, carefully. He didn't act on impulse or because of peer pressure. He had no mental shortcomings -- in fact, he was quite intelligent. But he got a rush out of breaking the law, which is why he bragged about the crime to a friend, who testified at his trial about his "thrill kill."
This tragedy would be enough for several lifetimes. But I was not out of the woods -- my two daughters from my first marriage were victims of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their biological father. My parents were saints, and I was raised in a wonderful extended family. I had, of course, heard of such violent crimes and domestic abuse. It was very distant to me; now I was living it. I simply could not believe the situation in which I found myself.
As a result of these experiences, I've devoted myself to saving other families from the agony ours has endured. In too many ways, we are treating the symptoms and not the cause of violence. I've learned that the most powerful weapon in the fight against crime is to steer young people toward successful, healthy and nonviolent life choices from an early age.
One fundamental way to treat the cause is to prevent child abuse and neglect. Most abused and neglected children do not grow up to be violent offenders, let alone killers. 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.
Over 26,000 Illinois children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2010. At least 73 Illinois children died from that abuse or neglect. Nationally, of the 1,560 child abuse and neglect fatalities, 80 percent were under age 4. While most survivors of childhood abuse and neglect never become violent criminals, research shows that an estimated over 1,000 victims of abuse and neglect in Illinois in 2010 will later become violent criminals who otherwise would have avoided such crimes if not for the abuse and neglect they endured as children.
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. Home visiting for families with infants and young children can cut abuse and neglect and reduce future crime.
Voluntary home-visiting programs employ trained workers who help at-risk families understand the developmental needs of infants and young children and ensure they receive a safe and healthy start. Parents learn to promote their child's social and cognitive development, respond sensitively to their children and avoid inappropriate discipline. One 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. And later delinquency was cut in half, as well.
America must invest in the programs proven to reduce crime and violence. Besides saving lives, such investments in kids can save millions of tax dollars. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership was shown to save almost $21,000 dollars for each family served.
Unfortunately, home-visiting services are only available to a small fraction of families in Illinois due to lack of funding. However, new federal funding for home-visiting programs is helping to meet some of that unmet need. To date, Illinois has received $19 million to expand access to home visiting in high-risk communities and conduct research on promising models. In order to remain eligible for the federal funds, Illinois is not allowed to reduce state funding for home visiting in its state budget.
Today, I continue on my journey, spending time working for prevention and victim restoration. I met and married a wonderful man who ultimately adopted the girls after I negotiated an agreement with my ex-husband that he would surrender his parental rights. The girls love their new dad. We've had a relatively normal and happy decade together as a loving family, but even with that stability, they still bear the scars of the emotional and physical abuse that they suffered.
Because of my personal experiences, I understand the stakes involved in making sure we set the youngest generation on the right track from an early age. If our national and state policymakers make the right choices by expanding our investment in proven approaches like voluntary home visiting, far fewer families will feel the pain of a violent crime and fewer children will be victims of child abuse or neglect.
Can we all envision an America where lives are not ended prematurely, where families do not spend their holidays in a cloud of sorrow, left with only the memory of lost relatives? Let's envision that -- and take the steps necessary to make it happen.
• Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, Northfield resident, is a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national crime prevention organization.