Kudos to Gov. Little for issuing an executive order to provide for paid parental leave for state employees. In his words, “this will enable families to spend time together in those critical weeks after a child enters the family.” This order will impact the 25,000 state employees who work for the executive branch of state government, the largest workforce in the state. 

Paid parental leave will have another impact: It will help to strengthen families and prevent child abuse. Preventing child abuse and neglect is our work at the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund. We are charged by the Legislature to provide funding and training and share best practices with a network of prevention organizations throughout the state.

How does paid parental leave help to prevent child abuse? Research from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is showing that paid parental leave helps prevent shaken baby syndrome. Researchers gathered data on the number of children hospitalized between 1995 and 2011 in California, where paid parental leave was in place, and compared that with several states without leave policies. Admission rates for abusive head injuries dropped significantly among children under age 2 following the enactment of paid family leave. States without a similar policy saw no significant drops in hospital admissions among children due to abusive head trauma, and these rates increased at times.

Why would this be the case? What is the relationship? We know that the primary trigger for shaking a baby is crying and the parent’s or caregiver’s frustration with their inability to soothe the baby. Caregiver frustration is intensified when the caregiver is in a hurry to get to work or to child care. By having a couple of months to rest and establish a new schedule, new parents will have the opportunity to ease into their new world of (possible) sleepless nights paired with the wonders of enjoying their new baby. Having more time to bond with an infant and to build strong attachment in the earliest months is critical to brain development and children’s well-being. Paid parental leave creates time and space for this process. This bond also helps build the mother’s resilience to overcome some of the more challenging aspects of early parenting. This resilience buffers the stress that can lead to situations in which abuse and neglect are more likely to occur.

Prevention is the key. We already know the costs of not preventing for our families and communities, but there is also a monetary cost for employers and society. When the CDC and others calculate the long-term cost of child abuse and neglect, they factor in the costs of lost productivity caused by absenteeism, disability and early death. The cost of child abuse and neglect is estimated to be at least $124 billion per year, according to the CDC. Preventing child abuse and neglect saves lives and saves money.

As Gov. Little suggests, the state can be a role model for both the public and private sectors to look at adopting family-friendly work policies. Already some local governments, Chobani and other companies have adopted paid parental leave policies. These family-friendly work policies are good for workers and good for the companies that provide them. Even more importantly, they are good for our families and communities.

Roger Sherman is executive director of the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund, the state affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse America.

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