In the midst of an emotionally charged, get-tough-on-crime congressional hearing recently, psychologist Jeffrey J. Haugaard, PhD, turned to speak directly to the father of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old murdered in California six and a half years ago.
"Perhaps when he was 2 or 3, we could have developed some programs with his family that could have made them better parents," Haugaard said in response to Marc Klaas's skepticism about efforts to prevent people from becoming criminals. "And your tragedy would never have happened."
Testifying for APA before the House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Haugaard said, "What we don't understand well in the country is how a young child...gets transformed into the type of person who commits these horrific types of crimes....We do not take the time to try and understand them. We want to condemn them, appropriately. We want to put them in jail, appropriately. But we don't want to understand them."
Measures such as the proposed mandatory life sentences for offenders convicted two or more times for crimes such as child abuse will have limited impact on crimes against children, said Haugaard, who is with the Cornell University department human development family studies.
"Children abused by such offenders are a small percentage of those physically or sexually abused each year," said Haugaard.
He reminded subcommittee members that "most children who are physically abused, are abused by a parent or caretaker. Most children who are sexually abused are abused by an adult they know."
Turning to what the nation does know about preventing child abuse, Haugaard pointed out that certain demonstration programs using parenting courses or nurse home visits have been shown to reduce physical abuse. Unfortunately, said Haugaard, the same cannot be said of programs to prevent sexual abuse, since we have little knowledge about the development of sexual abuse and sexual abusers.
"Federal and state agencies, and private foundations, have funded little basic research in this area," he noted. And most preventive efforts are aimed at helping children resist, but have shown little evidence of actually working, he said.
"To design effective prevention efforts for any problems, an understanding of the development of that problem must be reached," Haugaard told the subcommittee.