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Myriam Miedzian

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What Part of Prevention Do Americans Not Understand: A Case Study

Posted: 09/30/11 01:09 PM ET

It costs approximately $130,000 to keep one teenager in a Pennsylvania juvenile detention center for one year. It would cost less than $200 per child per year to fund Educating Children for Parenting (ECP), a violence prevention program started in Philadelphia in 1979. The ECP program adopted in Canada in 1996 and renamed Roots of Empathy (ROE) has since been introduced to several other countries, and has by now reached 373,000 children worldwide. Several Canadian university and government studies have found the program to be effective in decreasing aggressive and violent behavior, and increasing pro-social behavior.

Educating Children for Parenting has been defunded in Pennsylvania. The contrast between what has happened to ECP and ROE captures the sad story of our nation's lack of commitment to preventive programs.

I first heard about the Educating Children for Parenting program (initially known as Education for Parenting) back in the late 1980's when I was doing research on decreasing violent behavior in boys, and looking for school programs that could play a role in achieving that goal. I went to Philadelphia and sat in on ECP classes at the Germantown Friends school where it had been introduced in 1979, and at one of the nine inner city public schools where it was offered by the late 80's. The program's goal was to teach children -- as early as kindergarten -- how to be caring, empathic, responsible future parents; and by doing so reinforce that behavior in the children's daily lives, leading to decreases in bullying, school fights, and attacks on teachers. Its curriculum was created in 1978, by an interdisciplinary team of local professionals -- physicians, social workers, teachers -- led by Henri Parens, director of the Early Child Development Program and Research Professor of Psychiatry of the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute. Sally Scattergood, a teacher on the Parents team started Education for Parenting in 1979. It was dedicated to propagating the curriculum beyond the Germantown Friends school where she taught. The program grew to include most Philadelphia, suburban, and rural Pennsylvania elementary schools.

The program's central component was the baby visits -- once a month a parent brought a baby or toddler to class. In my 1991 book, Boys Will Be Boys, in a chapter entitled, "When Boys and Babies Meet," I described the extraordinary metamorphoses I witnessed in an inner city school where boys who looked angry, bored, slouched over their desks half asleep, came alive when a twenty one month toddler was brought in. They asked questions, exhibited caring behavior toward the child, and deep disappointment at his departure. The use of baby visits as a springboard for an ongoing program focused on developing empathy and child care skills was nothing short of brilliant, and I became a strong proponent of the program in my book, in my lectures, and through an organization -- Prepare Tomorrow's Parents -- that I co-founded.

In 1995 I gave a lecture in Toronto and showed a film about Educating Children for Parenting. Much to my delight the president of the Toronto-based Maytree Foundation emerged from the audience, to tell me that she wanted to fund ECP in Canada. The following school year the program, renamed Roots of Empathy, was introduced to Toronto schools.

The program's success in promoting empathy and preventing anti-social behavior has led to international praise, prestigious awards, enthusiastic articles, and interviews for President Mary Gordon, a graduate of Educating Children for Parenting's training program. In 2008 ROE was one of three winners -- out of 362 entries from 39 countries -- of a Changemakers competition for programs that help youth at risk. Gordon has met with the Dalai Lama who wholeheartedly endorses Roots of Empathy, as does Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman.

Unlike Mary Gordon, Sally Scattergood enjoys no international acclaim, nor has the Dalai Lama sung her praises and endorsed ECP. Quite to the contrary, as Anita Kulick, now president of the organization renamed Educating Communities for Parenting, explains, a combination of teaching to the test -- a result of the Leave No Child Behind program -- and the U.S. reluctance to fund preventive programs led to the defunding of Educating Children for Parenting. While its curriculum, renamed Baby Watch, is still used in a small number of schools, the organization's primary focus has become educating pregnant teens to become responsible, caring parents.

While she takes pride in her program which helps pregnant teens and delinquent youth throughout the region, Kulick comments on the drying up of Educating Children for Parenting funding, "In the U.S. most social service funding is for intervention and not prevention -- which is shortsighted and far, far less cost effective. We could run a Baby Watch program for a fraction of the cost of intervention remedies. "

In the meantime, school violence is rampant in Philadelphia. A March 3, 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer article, based on a yearlong investigation, revealed that "more than 30,000 serious incidents -- from assaults to robberies to rapes -- [were] reported" in the Philadelphia school district in the last five years. Many Philadelphia schools are war zones; students and teachers live in fear, with a hindered ability to learn. The article points out that "when anti-violence programs do work... they aren't implemented on a wider basis."
In September 2010, Philadelphia Superintendent of schools, Arlene C. Ackerman authorized spending $7.5 million on security cameras for 19 "persistently dangerous" schools. But, as teachers and Inquirer reporters point out, many violent incidents take place in schools with security cameras; often in the presence of terrified teachers and pupils.

In our country, we always seem to come up with after-the-fact funding for programs such as security cameras and weapon detectors in schools, programs for pregnant teens, child-rearing classes for parents whose severely battered children were taken away from them -- taking such a class is a standard condition of returning their children to them. And then the final after-the-fact program -- the juvenile detention centers, and prisons. None of this is to deny that some effective violence prevention programs including child-rearing/empathy programs, conflict resolution programs, and anti-bullying programs exist in the U.S. But given our population, they are very small in numbers, rarely receive the resources needed to make them fully effective, and are scattered here and there around the country.

Is it surprising that the United States incarcerates more of its young people than any other country in the world? Approximately 65,000 are brought to juvenile detention centers in a given year -- the American Correctional Association estimates the average annual cost at $88,000 per year per youth. Is it surprising that at 2.3 million, our prison population is the highest in the world, or that in spite of these huge incarceration rates, our homicide rates are approximately three times those of Canada?

When will we, like the Canadians and others, realize that $200 a year for prevention is worth so much more than $88,000 a year for a "cure"?