April is “Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month,” a time designated by governors and legislatures across our nation to highlight the dangers facing vulnerable children. Here in Maine, we feel a special urgency to heighten public understanding of this epidemic and prevent it as well.

According to the Maine Children’s Alliance “Kids Count” annual report, more than 4,000 Maine children were confirmed victims of abuse and neglect in 2012. That’s an alarming statistic, as is the fact that reported child abuse and neglect cases have increased these last two years. Many of us close to this field also know that thousands of other incidents of maltreatment go unreported and undocumented each year.

Every incident involved some form of physical and emotional injury to a child. Some of these injuries, such as head trauma caused by shaking a baby, can cripple a child for life and lead to tremendous health care costs. In a few of the most severe cases, a child dies.

Child endangerment doesn’t just affect the children who are abused or neglected. It can create a vicious cycle that breeds future violence. Research shows that abused and neglected children are 29 percent more likely to become violent criminals as juveniles or adults. Year after year, abuse and neglect contributes to crime in Maine and adds to future budget woes for our judicial and corrections systems. Those costs are in addition to the human toll taken on victims and their families.

Although most victimized children will not grow into violent criminals, they are more likely to have major hurdles in their lives. As adults, they also are more likely to be unemployed, have marital problems and attempt suicide.

Fortunately, abuse and neglect can be prevented by voluntary home visiting with young, inexperienced parents, who are trying to cope with the stress and doubt and lack of sleep, all of which can impair judgment. Trained professionals help these young parents understand their children’s emotional and physical needs, make their homes safer and deal positively with the stressful situations that arise.

In 2012, the Maine Families Home Visiting Program served more than 2,300 first-time and adolescent families, helping parents reduce preventive illness and injuries to more than 2,500 Maine children. Last year, Maine Families served increasing numbers of families involved in Child Protective Services. Among families who had been involved with Child Protective Services at the time of enrollment, 95 percent had no further substantiated allegations for child abuse or neglect during their participation with Maine Families.

In addition, 88 percent of the program’s expectant mothers received adequate prenatal care, and 93 percent of the children had up-to-date immunizations, compared to 73 percent of all children statewide. Almost all of the children, 99.5 percent, had a primary care provider, and 97 percent had health insurance. The program also reduced babies’ exposure to secondhand smoke and improved home safety.

Voluntary home visiting programs also can be an extraordinarily wise investment. One program widely used around the nation, the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), has been shown to cut abuse and neglect in half, lower health care costs, reduce the need for costly remedial education for children, and make families more self-sufficient. Randomized trials also found that Early Head Start programs with a strong home visiting component improved the education and training of mothers and increased their earnings by $300 per month.

Maine Families improves the lives of our youngest and most at-risk citizens and helps support their parents to become better parents.

We encourage our elected leaders to continue their support of voluntary home visiting programs for the sake of Maine families and kids and the health of our communities in the coming years.

Robert Gregoire is chief of the Augusta Police Department. Attorney Charles Soltan is chairman of Maine Children’s Trust.