April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a collective national call to action that urges us to prevent child maltreatment by engaging—and supporting--families as partners in our efforts. During 2015, approximately 683,000 children suffered maltreatment while approximately 428,000 entered foster care for at least one day. These are statistics we faithfully track, but they do not begin to convey the impacts of child abuse and neglect.
Homelessness. Substance use. Interpersonal violence and poverty. They all can draw the attention of child protection services, and they all can give rise to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are strongly related to the potential for unhealthy development over a person’s lifespan. Among a host of impacts, exposure to ACEs can affect brain development and the capacity of individuals to form healthy attachments, and they put individuals at much higher risk for a number of other poor outcomes.
Ensuring the right to childhood has been a legislative mandate from as early as 1919, when child welfare standards were developed and the importance of strengthening and keeping families together was recognized. Yet, in our well-intentioned commitment to keep children safe from harm, we have also created a robust system of out-of-home care that we now know has not kept pace with our full understanding of ACEs. Our efforts to protect children sometimes underestimates the capacity of parents to care for their children, and often lacks the availability of resources to support a service array that can keep families together despite the odds they are facing.
The recently passed Families First Prevention Act represents a fundamental shift: The focus now is on introducing and providing prevention services earlier. This new approach emphasizes funding for family and kinship care, in-home parent skill-based programs, mental health services and substance abuse prevention and treatment services. Abt is supporting the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse—developed in accordance with the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018—and is systematically reviewing research on programs and services intended to provide enhanced support to children and families to help prevent foster care placements. Abt is also leading the Building Capacity To Evaluate Community Collaborations To Strengthen and Preserve Families project. We’re helping build critical evidence to support the development and expansion of community approaches to preventing child maltreatment.
But this pervasive public health crisis cannot be solved by one system, organization or agency alone. Our children, youth and families are facing enormous risks and challenges daily. From child maltreatment and exposure to violence to the opioid epidemic to long-term consequences of ACEs, they need our early and ongoing support. So what will move the needle in our collective efforts to reduce and eliminate child maltreatment? I believe it is the recognition that the individuals and families who are at risk are us. We all know someone in our circle, a mother and father who are struggling with the demands of parenthood, a teen with depression, a family trying to make ends meet or a friend in recovery. The list goes on and on. We need to notice, engage and encourage--not shame--people who are struggling. We must also believe in the ability of our children, youth and parents to overcome challenges and provide them with the right array of high quality mental and behavioral health supports, economic mobility and access to educational opportunity.
Finally, we must never lose hope. Not in our efforts to prevent child maltreatment but also in our belief that children can grow up in loving homes with caring parents whose strengths can be recognized and actualized – especially when we join together to support their efforts.