Dr. Huff releases first children’s book

Clown front CoverWhy the Clown Wouldn’t Smile—celebrating the power of being different.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The circus is not succeeding. No wonder the clown won’t smile! But a boy on crutches, wearing a funny hat with a green feather in it, has a solution to the problem. Fortunately the circus master listens.

Why the Clown Wouldn’t Smile was published by Asheville’s nonprofit, traditional publisher Grateful Steps. The book is illustrated by a teacher and student at the former Asheville-Buncombe County Orthopedic School, founded to provide for the educational needs of children who faced lengthy hospitalizations due to their developmental handicaps—before the public schools were able to accommodate them.

The Book is available at www.gratefulsteps.org and www.amazon.com. Dr. Huff will have many area book signings. Three are scheduled thus far: Montreat Moore Center, December 4, 2012, 4-6 p.m.; White Horse, Black Mountain, December 9, 2012, 2-5 p.m.; and Accent on Books (Asheville, NC), December 14, 2012, 6 p.m.

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Matches for the “Takers”

“The Little Match Girl” is a classic and deeply poignant story by Hans Christian Anderson that touches the heartstrings of all who read it. Whether written simply as a story or as a commanding statement of social justice, Anderson pulls us into a narrative that demands attention from even the most jaded souls among us.

It is a bitter cold New Year’s Eve. A little girl, shabbily dressed, attempts to sell matches to people bustling past her, ignoring her desperate plight. One by one she strikes her matches, seeking to find some tiny bit of warmth from them. As she lights her last match, she sees a vision of a loving grandmother, coming to take her to a better place. Rejected in life, those who find her still and frozen body the next morning take pity and carry her to a proper place of rest.

Although this story comes from the pages of a time long passed when children were often cruelly misused and severely neglected, the lesson it contains is as relevant today as it was then.

Children in America still die because they have no warm shelter from winter’s chill. They die from hunger in a land where enough food is wasted each day to feed them all. They die because health care, so advanced and so precise, carries a price tag that shuts them out. They die because the circumstances of their birth often place them in the middle of danger and horrific scenes of violence.

And, like the Little Match Girl, they are very often ignored while they live, only to evoke remorse and pity when they die.

Oddly enough, that “ignoring” has given rise to a new term on the landscape of our national dialogue.

They, who struggle to survive, whose families work long hours, live on marginal incomes, delay medical care to save money, eat the wrong foods because they cannot afford better, live in sub-standard or no housing at all and still dream of a better life, have a new title.

They are the “takers.”

They count as their members the mentally ill, the angry and hopeless, the single parent, the learning disabled and developmentally delayed child, the overweight and underfed, the school dropout and the youth without a compass who follow a path into the dark and dangerous alleys of life.

Their new “scarlet letter” casts them as moochers, lazy, worthy of disdain and living off the efforts of those enlightened ones among us who are the real providers and caretakers of society. Although this may seem an extreme comparison, there are far too many today who want to believe it to be true. Shaped and reinforced by an ideology that tends to separate rather than include, their minds embrace fear rather than hope and perpetuate myths instead of truth.

Sadly, at this season of more open hearts, I fear there will be many who pass by the little match children in our lives, failing even to offer them a tiny flame of warmth, feeling only regret when the last light has gone out.

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A Tale of Two Children

It was, according to the opening words of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “the best of times the worst of times”

Although far removed from the French Revolution, the contrasting scenes those words evoke are very much reflected in the lives of America’s children today. Consider the increasing numbers of those in poverty who live on the fringe of hope and for whom the worst of times simply last and last and last.  If current research on the developing brain is accurate, and mounting evidence says it is, then the child who sits in that fringe will be hard pressed to move beyond it. For what we are now learning is that the stress to the delicate  brain of a very young child, struggling to survive in a hostile environment punctuated with violence, rejection, hunger, illness, homelessness and fear is too much to permit its normal development. The chemical dance that inhabits and protects us becomes a frenetic force that destroys rather than nurtures and, as a result, the brain forever loses vital connections that have been designed to plan, think, behave, learn and rejoice.

Consider then, the tale of two children.

One is a happy little fellow who attends a pre-school day care with energetic teachers, a thriving atmosphere and an emphasis on health eating called “a rainbow in my tummy.”  He goes home to a warm and welcoming setting, is read to before he falls asleep and probably has a well loved dog, who likewise, is eager to greet him each time he returns home.

He represents, perhaps, the best of times, the one we would much rather believe is the happy image of all American children.

Not so.

They may not all live in the squalor of the neglected social world that Dickens so graphically described, but one third of our children are still haunted by the same limited opportunities that he sought to bring to light. The astounding  truth is that, apart from the emotional, physical and behavioral suffering, there exists the damage that is done to the brains of countless numbers of children by the toxicity of environments filled with the heartless persistence of neglect. What results in so many is academic failure, social unrest and violent behavior. What is also becoming clear  is that the altering of the brain’s structure and function leads to a very high risk of major illnesses such as diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Thus the cost of damaged beginnings is played out in every level of life adding, sadly, to economic woes and social devastation.

Two children. One, Dickens would surely have said has “Great Expectations!” The other is simply to be carted away as a tragic example of being born into the wrong circumstances. If he is lucky he will somehow be resilient enough to accomplish some aspirations, no matter how dimmed they may already be.

What is to be learned from the contrasting tale of these tw0 children?

Many things of course. The most pressing lesson is the critical need to value each child born and provide a stable invitation to a life that has enough food, a warm bed to sleep in, a hand to hold and a smile to wipe away the inevitable tears. That is not too much to ask for any child. And it is not too much to ask of everyone who indeed feel “that children are our future” to challenge the complacency, the ideology, the lack of understanding of children’s development and the absence of resources that stand in the way of that future. It is no longer acceptable to waste the wonderful minds of so many useful citizens when we know what can be done to protect and stimulate them. It is no longer acceptable for there to be a tale of two children.

It is time for their story to be one. That is the tale we would most desire to read from the likes of Charles Dickens.

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The Politics of Hunger

Across America, every day of the school week, millions of children will arrive early and go directly to the cafeteria. There, they will have their first meal of substance since leaving school the day before. At the end of the school week, teachers will pack staples for them and their families, most of which comes from local food banks or farm to school programs. By careful rationing of the food provided, there will be enough to last until school begins again the following week. They live, these children and their families, meal to meal, their source of food a most unlikely place: their school.

The rate of poverty has increased by 20% in the last decade and the number of children who face what food banks in the United Sates call “slow and steady starvation” easily approach 15 million or more.

Sadly, they are largely unnoticed. Even more so since their plight has become so accepted that it seems only natural that their state of existence should be a part of the social structure! And, in spite of the fact that so many of their families are working – working at low paying jobs with no benefits and with little hope of doing better.

But this should not be the case and it speaks very poorly for a country that was, supposedly, built on valuing individual strengths and unbounded opportunity.

Oddly, they are caught in the middle of the “politics of hunger” as congress struggles to fulfill its moral obligations to the increasing numbers of hungry children. After almost 15 years of debate, in 2012, congress did approve new nutritional guidelines for school lunch programs that were directed at the need for healthier menus. As a means of supporting school systems that adopted these new standards, an increase of 6 cents for each  lunch served was allocated. In an odd move however, congress did declare that pizza is a vegetable!

This somewhat convoluted approach to providing food for the hungry children also was designed to combat the paradoxical problem of childhood obesity. However, vast numbers of school systems found it difficult to comply with the new guidelines as costs for healthier foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, exceeded the cafeteria budget. The need for new and improved food service equipment only added to the debt burden. The result of all this is that the “safety net” source of food for the hungry remains marginally nutritional, laden  with fat and high in sugar, adding excess weight and empty calories.

Controversies in congress, over supplemental food programs for poor families, free school breakfasts and lunches and nutritional standards have made planning and implementation of school budgets and menus more difficult. By the same token, states with their strapped budgets have been asked to shoulder more of the fiscal burden. The “politics of hunger” simply means  less support, less food and more hungry children.

It is certainly true that much attention at all levels has been given to the multiple and complex problems of hunger and the paradoxical presence of obesity. Poor nutrition, food shortage, labeling of food products, the cost of eating, lack of sound nutritional education and the means to pay for adequate food supplies all constitute a mix of issues that are hard to manage. They become the elements of an agenda that characterize the struggle to find common ground in the politics of hunger surrounding the feeding of our children. Common sense would suggest that there ought to be better and simpler ways to achieve the necessary goals of eliminating hunger, preventing obesity and keeping food budgets, for everyone, within reasonable levels.

Socially and politically, steps can be taken to do so. Communities can step up to address school budgets in a way that will allow for nutritious food for all students. All families, especially those with the means to do so, should take seriously the foods they buy and the meals they prepare. Reliance on “food in a hurry” should be kept to a minimum. Governments, federal and state, should  assess seriously the real need and the real numbers of those who are hungry and translate that information into priorities for action. Hospitals, medical clinics and medical practitioners should address hunger, nutrition, and healthy eating habits at every encounter.

In short, hunger, obesity, poor nutrition and the myriad of consequences that result are not just a problem for someone else. The “politics of hunger” is an agenda of the body politic. And that includes us all.

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Swollen Bellies and Red Streaked Hair

By ordinary measures, the simple sandwiches, washed down with cold water, that were quickly consumed by the hungry medical team, were just that: a simple meal. To the children, crowding hopefully around the open windows of the make do clinic, the food was a feast. This fact was made even more obvious by the appearance of those same children who later waited patiently in line for a dose of worm medicine. Their swollen bellies and the copper red streaks running through their hair gave strong proof to the malnutrition and protein deficiency that sapped their energy, dulled their minds and shortened their lives.

Malnutrition and hunger are all too prevalent throughout the world, signatures of the poverty of body and hope that sits at the very doorstep of the rich and powerful. In America, few children line up in outdoor clinics for worm medicine and not too many are seen with swollen bellies and other than normal red hair. But to deny the existence of poverty in this “land of opportunity” and its morbid effects is to ignore 1 out of every 4 children who are every bit as hungry as their counterparts in so called “third world countries.”

That hunger takes many shapes and produces far too many consequences.

Most everyone comes into the world with great potential. Given even modest means of support, love, nurture, stimulation and the proper foods to eat, most children, like flowers stretching toward sunlight, grow into decent and productive adults. Poverty, with its many faces like giant clouds that continually darken their world, denies that support and turns the future into a desperate struggle to survive.

Children living in poverty do not learn in school as well as their peers and are among the first to leave places of education that offer possibilities for productive living. Poverty saps energy as much in America as in the places where even a simple sandwich is missing. Fear, anger, desperation and depression are constant companions of children victimized by the circumstances of life that are no fault of their own. Recent research has shown again that the youth in this country are dissuaded of hope for their role in life when poverty is the only path they know to follow.

The number of children in homeless shelters and those who sleep in broken down cars is increasing and the illness, sporadic school attendance, absent role models and exposure to crime are further contributors to the ever mounting toll that poverty extracts from its victims. And, in a perverse kind of irony, the lack of sufficient economic attention to the root causes of poverty and  its prevention actually adds to the cost of dealing with violent crime, abuse, drugs and disease. The old adage “pay now or pay later” seems a very appropriate statement in a time when those living in poverty is increasing and the resources to help shrinking.

But who pays? Are there enough soup kitchens, homeless shelters, social service agencies, church groups, non-profit and philanthropic foundations to engage in what President Lyndon Johnson called the “war on poverty?” Or, in the immortal words of the venerable Ebenezer Scrooge “Are there no prisons?!”

Even if all these groups, working together, addressed the 1 in 4 of our children (and therefore their families) who live in poverty, they would only deal, for the most part, with the consequences, not the causes nor the prevention of this terrible and pervasive blot on the landscape of humanity.

So what to do? Give up? The poor are with us always, right? Most of them are not motivated to get ahead and out of poverty, right? We should not spend valuable resources helping those who won’t help themselves, right?

Unfortunately, in America today, the divide that separates the poor from the more affluent and the ideological perspectives that drive that divide are growing into a crescendo that is a subtle part of the political agenda and a disheartening view of our so called “American Dream.”

Perhaps it is time to re-frame the war on poverty and decide on some realistic solutions. First, there is the moral imperative that has survived through thousands of years, wars, governments, social revolutions, bitter rivalries and spiritual encounters that clings to the idea that humans have value and that they should be preserved. Associated with this as a second idea is that the forces that govern should accept that imperative as a fundamental to their own survival. In other words the human race strives to go on and the governments of the world have a responsibility to see that it happens. And that is the fundamental argument that is now unfolding as America heads toward another election. Should government play a major role in meeting the fundamental needs of people in their desire for food, housing, clean water, education, health care, places to work and play, and the secured freedom to express opinions, values and beliefs? Or do we simply leave it all to the benevolence and good will of a few and hope for the best?

The answer may well decide the fate of 1 in 4  of all our children
and leave to chance the possibility of more swollen bellies and red streaked hair.

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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Even today, few people anywhere in the world, who read or hear the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence, fail to find hope in the bold and courageous statement that calls for “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

Most likely, however, those words were nowhere near the thoughts of the folks who entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado to exercise the exact meaning of those words. They were engaged in life and enjoyed the freedom to pursue, for a few hours at least, a special form of happiness.

The American Ideal — that all individuals have the right to Life, Liberty and Happiness — is an ideal that generations of Americans have struggled to achieve and fought to defend. Ideals such as these transcend political, economic, cultural, gender and racial boundaries. They are ideals built upon the promise that the citizens of a free nation can and should be able to live in peace and free of fear.

For those who went to that theater, those ideals vanished in a few terrifying and unbelievable moments. Life for some vanished entirely. Happiness evaporated in a hail of bullets. Liberty from fear and the nightmares of terror ceased to exist.

And all across the country, the ideals of hope generated by the Declaration of Independence, do not shine as brightly as before. Everyone has been diminished and everyone has found one more reason to be just a little more afraid.

The likelihood is that this act of mindless destruction is not just a rare or even unexpected event. Outbursts of violence such as the one in Aurora, Colorado will continue. More people will die needlessly, more lives will be destroyed, more hope will be lost and more fear will gnaw at the core of our existence.

Unless . . .

Unless there is a powerful movement to improve the mental health of those who are withdrawing from the community of their friends, neighbors and families. More than ever before, the workings of the human mind are better understood and better ways of helping minds that have gone awry are available.

It is estimated that at any one given time, 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some form of mental illness. Of that number, 6%, or roughly 1 in 17, have a serious mental disorder. Of even more concern is that over 5 million children in America suffer from mental illness and that number is compounded by the fact that making such a diagnosis at an early age is very difficult. It is well known, however, that early detection and treatment of mental disorders can improve outcomes and lessen long term disabilities. Yet, at the very times when such understanding and the need for help intersect, mental health services have been defunded and the political will to act, with intelligence and concern to address this major health concern, is sadly lacking.

Unless the cries of those who suffer from a damaged sense of reality are heard, their suffering will become the suffering of many.

And then there is this other thing. Unless our society comes to grips with the insanity of free flowing assault weapons and inappropriately obtained handguns, true weapons of mass destruction as so vividly demonstrated in the latest slaughter, the fear that gnaws at the core of our freedom will grow.

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control are chilling. In 2007, guns killed 35,198 people in the United States. 12,129 of those were homicides and 17,348 were suicides. 3000 of those killed were children, while an additional 17,500 children were injured by guns, many of whom will never fully recover. Actuarial data from life insurance companies note that this number exceeds the death rate from colon and prostate cancer combined and health and life insurance premiums are increased due to deaths and injury from gun violence. The CDC also notes that the death rate from guns is higher than that from automobile accidents.

There is far too much complacency about those numbers and the tragedy they represent. It will take sober reflection and great courage to overcome the entrenched romance Americans have with their guns. Until that happens, the massacres will continue, anguish and grief will be front-page news and thousands upon thousands of the most vulnerable among us, our children, will never grow up.

The men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence were faced with the challenge to shape a new day in the life of the civilized world. Had they not met that challenge, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness would have remained lofty ideals, forever lost in the shadows of human existence.

We, likewise, face new and demanding challenges to those ideals that must not be ignored. Unless we act with the same courage of those who framed our independence, we will find it ever harder to maintain the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness we hold so dear.

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Grunting Pigs and Crying Children

Only two were left when the new director of the home for orphaned children cleared the shelves in his new office and he quickly passed them along, as a reminder of past history, to a friend. They were well crafted with handles made for easy grasping and with holes drilled in the shafts for more effect. They were, it should be noted, well worn from use.

This new Director, a person with both the ability to understand the behavior of those in his charge and a grasp of biblical directives that steered him more to compassion than cruelty, had no use for the wooden paddles previously and frequently used to carry out discipline. He, and the staff he gathered, would not view frightened, vulnerable and fragile children, some holding onto their last shreds of identity with defiance, as creatures to be beaten into submission.

Such a shift in thinking and action however has not come easily to the family of man who for countless centuries of time has found the use of physical force to shape children’s behavior too readily available. It should not, however, come as a great surprise that little positive learning has resulted from corporal punishment. The reverse is more often the case. Countless social, medical, psychological, ethical and yes, theological perspectives, through research and the following throughout life spans have all too often noted higher rates of negative social behavior and violent actions in children who were too frequently disciplined by force when compared to those who were not so managed. With such information readily available, it would seem only logical that corporal punishment, certainly in places, such as schools and religious settings, where children are brought to learn and model behavior, would have disappeared eons ago. That is not the case. In many public schools in this country, corporal punishment is alive and well.

There is an old Danish proverb that goes like this: “Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries and you will have a fine pig and a bad child.”

We humans still have a lot to learn about the very earliest needs and behavior of children. Ignoring the cries of the young child may have been a proverbial norm but it has done nothing to engender trust and provide comfort. What does help shape the environment of trust and comfort is discipline that is critical to  the shaping of a child’s behavior. Discipline, however, is not punishment, it is teaching. Teaching takes more time, demands more energy, calls forth more understanding and requires a massive amount of patience. But children are worth that effort. Children are worth the time spent to calm their fears, strengthen their trust and feed their world with laughter, song, direction and expectations. Children are not like pigs just waiting for the next meal and they are not endowed with armor that protects them from physical assault.

So, the paddles from that one orphan’s home are silent and the atmosphere in that one place a model for what discipline is all about. When the rest of the world catches up to those notions, children will have more opportunities to benefit from safe, directing and thriving environments where their cries will be properly addressed and pigs – well, pigs will still be fed!

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Monsters Under The Bed

So, just what is lurking under your bed at night? What monsters with enormous eyes, furry feet and teeth like fangs are waiting to pounce on you?

If you have ever been a fan of Calvin and Hobbs, that wonderful creation of Bill Watterson, or a three year old anywhere, then you surely know the answer to that question! And, if you have a three year old, or thereabouts, living in your house, it is highly likely, flashlight in hand, that you have done many a night’s search, looking under the bed for those monsters! There aren’t really any there of course but in the imagination of a young child they might just be hiding for the right moment to pounce! And what a marvelous, wonderful, scary and creative gift imagination is! A stuffed tiger becomes a real playmate, superheroes fly through the air and the moon comes up at night pulled by a magical string of lights called stars.

Fortunately, the magic of imagination is not just for children. The human spirit is lifted by the music, words, art, and story of generation after generation of creative people whose talents flowed from the well of imagination that was a part of the birthright of each ones childhood.

Imagine what the world would be like if all the magic of creativity were to suddenly disappear. What a tired, bland, dreary existence there would be if the imaginative and creative spirit so evident in the youngest among us was never transformed into the refreshing and reassuring energy that makes our souls shine with excitement. In short, imagination and creativity go hand in hand to be the very heart that makes human life yearn to reach for lofty goals and to relish each days existence.

It would make sense, then, that such valuable tools, inseparable patterns of  human development and thus predictors of good and noble deeds, would be nurtured throughout the entire life span. Unfortunately, however, that notion seems to be in pretty short supply these days. Rather than embracing change and confronting challenges with the confidence of their creative ability, too many of our leaders are pulling the covers over their heads, screaming about the monsters under our beds and invoking fear as the only resort to our salvation.

Surely, we can do better than this. Surely, we have, waiting in the wings, those who understand and value their childhood treasures of stuffed animals, imaginary friends and triumph over the monsters under their beds. Leaders who are not afraid to look in the face of fear and who are not afraid to stare down the greed, self centered ideologies and regressive actions that limit our creativity and turn our children’s imagination into horror stories.

If we are ever to be free of the fear lurking in every dark corner of our lives, we must learn from our children and laugh outright at all those silly monsters that live only in amazing imaginations. Then, perhaps, we can turn to the real work that our creativity desires to embrace.

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One Giant Leap for Relief

The famous words of Neil Armstrong, after he set foot on the moon, are a part of the iconic language of modern times and a magnificent tribute to the daring spirit that has lifted so many horizons for future generations. Truly, it was “one giant leap for mankind!”

The passage of the Affordable Care Act, dubbed by many as “Obamacare” and the US Supreme Court’s validation of that act as constitutional is another giant leap – especially for children.

Within the framework of that Act, children will have better access to health care, will experience improved quality of care, be provided more extensive preventive health services and will never be denied coverage of their medical needs, no matter the diagnosis.

Although these particulars of health care reform that benefit children may not excite people as much as the words of the first man on the moon, or even gain the support of many who will ultimately gain from them, they are a giant leap of relief.

Millions of young children will now experience relief because they  have easily accessible and affordable health care from competent medical professionals, clinics and hospitals they had no idea was missing. Their parents will now be relieved from the constant anxiety brought on by their inability to pay for care and the worry of not having a consistent place to go for that care.

These may seem like small steps and many who who do not feel that health car reform is needed will ignore them. But for those who have lived in the shadows where their medical care was obtained only in a crisis, the decision of the Supreme Court truly renders them one giant leap of relief.

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Empty Swings

It is too early on a fresh summer morning for the young children to be on the playground so the swings stand empty, stirred only by a light breeze. Later of course, as the sun warms the cool air that circulates the music of the creek, the children will come. They will fill the empty swings with their presence and their laughter will echo through the trees. Throughout the long summer days, wave after wave of eager children will play a tug of war with a parent or caregiver as they plead for just one more turn!

What child does not like a soaring ride on a swing? And what adventure does their imagination not embrace as they reach, higher and higher for the sky? It is hard to think of a playground that does not have a swing and even harder to believe that they would ever be without a child.

But there are places where the swings forever stand empty and the vibrant laughter of children will never be heard. They stand empty, hundreds of thousands of them, because the children who should be there have been abused, neglected or murdered by those who were ordained to protect and nurture them. They stand empty because violence too often is the norm for solving problems and they stand empty because the resources necessary to help young families, whose coping skills are unable to manage the stress of  a new baby, are not part of the political will. They stand empty for a host of reasons and their mute presence is a shame and a sore on the fabric of human existence that will not heal.

The numbers are mind boggling. In America, each year, 800,000 children  are abused or neglected. A raging epidemic. Far too many swings left empty. Yet, these numbers, rather than ignite a mass response, are so overwhelming that paralysis and neglect of a different kind occurs. What develops in the life of the victims of abuse is not difficult to comprehend. Research now reveals that life is shorter, brain function altered and violence, substance abuse and criminal action much more prevalent than in those who did not experience abuse. It is easy then to see that the effects of abuse are not just limited to time a child is harmed but is a predictor of a life that will always be damaged. What should also be obvious is that the cost to society will be many times over the price that ought to be paid in developing programs that prevent the epidemic from developing in the first place.

It is known that many young mothers are at risk for being in abusive environments of their own that lead to the abuse and neglect of their children. Intensive community support initiatives such as nurse visitation for the first few months of a new baby’s life offers much help. Access to adequate health care and the recognition and treatment of events such as post partum depression are critical to the improved physical and psychological health of a new mother. Better training in understanding the factors that lead to abuse for social workers, law enforcement personnel, medical professionals and mental health experts is key to blunting the onward march of this sad epidemic.

Multiple causes lend themselves to a variety of solutions. Still, the most obvious is the need for everyone to take this epidemic seriously. When that becomes the case, most every swing will be full and the laughter of children will bounce back and forth with the rhythm of the wind that lifts them to new heights.

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