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Mondale led effort against child abuse; now Congress must re-engage

Minnesotans today know Walter Mondale as an "elder statesman" who was an ambassador, senator, vice president and presidential candidate. They also know him as a soft-spoken Norwegian with an affable sense of humor and a keen intellect.

An important, yet quiet anniversary just passed — and it's the anniversary of what could arguably be considered one of Mondale's most important contributions to society, and one for which many people are unaware. Then-Sen. Mondale was the chief Senate author of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, or CAPTA, which was truly the first significant modern-day response to the issue of child maltreatment, abuse and neglect.

Jan. 31, 2009, marked the 35th anniversary of the date President Richard Nixon signed Mondale's legislation into law. CAPTA has been amended and modified through the years, but the significance of the legislation is that Mondale recognized the critical need to address what is truly an epidemic problem in our country: child abuse and neglect.

Fully 20 percent of those under 18 are sexually abused
On average, in the America of 2009, one in five children is sexually abused before they turn 18 — fully 20 percent of our kids. The federal government estimates that there are 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse among us today. The rate of child abuse in general is an even higher proportion. The physical, emotional and financial costs relating to abuse are monumental — and each incidence of abuse has the potential to dramatically and negatively affect the life of one of our fellow Americans. 

The state of Minnesota released a study in 2007 that calculated the cost of all sexual violence in Minnesota in 2005 at $8 billion — just for the year 2005.  In 2007, Prevent Child Abuse America released a study showing the estimated cost of child abuse and neglect to be $103.8 billion nationally — a staggering cost.

Two significant factors are currently contributing to abuse in America today: the economy and the war. Unfortunately, when economic stress hits home, child abuse often rises. Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a report showing a significant rise in child abuse among military families arising from to the stress of the Iraq and Afghan wars. 

A comprehensive re-engagement is needed
As the new Congress and the new president ride the wave of "change" and seek to address the significant issues confronting America, I hope that they take a serious look at what can be done to combat child abuse and help those who have been victimized. Addressing this issue will literally save tens of billions of dollars on top of the fact that we should feel a moral obligation to act. There truly needs to be a comprehensive approach to combat this tragic reality.

Mondale's mentor and friend Hubert Humphrey once spoke of three moral tests of government, stating that one is how the government treats those in the dawn of life, the children. Abuse of American children is at epidemic proportions and the federal government needs to re-engage in child protection and make it a high priority.  Mondale made it a major priority during his years in the Senate. Let us now, 35 years later, work toward more solutions that will protect children and prevent abuse.

Ted Thompson is a public affairs adviser and the former president of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children (NAPSAC).

He served nine years for two Minnesota Members of Congress, most recently in the role of chief of staff, and is the father of three children. He can be reached at ted [at] tedthompson.com.

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