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June 2004Vol. 5, No. 5Prevention Leaders Strategize to "Reframe" Child Abuse Messages

Existing messages regarding the need to prevent child abuse and neglect may reinforce the public's mistaken beliefs about the issue and may even alienate the very audiences prevention advocates hope to reach, according to research commissioned by Prevent Child Abuse America with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The findings were presented at Building Public Will for Prevention: A Summit on Reframing Child Abuse and Neglect, held in Washington, D.C., on April 23 - 24.

The summit kickoff included opening remarks by Joan Ohl, Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ohl spoke of the Administration's long-standing support for research and programs to support vulnerable families and prevent child abuse and neglect, including President Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget proposal to double funding for two critical programs: the Basic State Grant Program (from $21 million to $42 million) and the Community-Based Grants for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (from $32 million to $66 million).

Most of the summit centered on the research, presented by the FrameWorks Institute and its partners at Public Knowledge and Cultural Logic, which was intended to help advocates engage the public more effectively in prevention. Key components included a review of existing surveys and focus group reports, original one-on-one interviews and focus groups, and an analysis of messages currently in use by Prevent Child Abuse America and the news media.

Findings from the research identify a number of barriers for prevention advocates to overcome, including:

  • The idea of the family as an isolated, autonomous unit impedes public support for family and child policies.
  • Lack of understanding or misunderstanding of child development results in incorrect beliefs about child rearing and child policies. (For example, many adults define a variety of developmentally appropriate actions as "spoiling.")
  • Many people believe community intervention only occurs in dysfunctional families. This keeps them from seeing the positive ways communities interact with all families.

Researchers also identified a number of opportunities and needs for communications efforts:

  • Communications need to connect families to communities in positive ways to build societal responsibility for kids. Youth sports, libraries, etc. serve to remind people of the ways in which communities have a role in raising children.
  • The public is very interested in child development. The right understanding of development can lead to support for beneficial policies.
  • The public readily accepts that parenting is a tough job that does not come naturally. This approach builds support for programs to educate parents and helps connect families to communities.

Based upon their findings, researchers made recommendations to help child abuse prevention experts and advocates avoid losing momentum and reinforcing negative aspects of the current public frames. They suggested that effective communications messages need to include:

  • A positive connection to community.
  • An emphasis on society's responsibility for children.
  • An understandable model for child development.
  • A focus on the objective of raising healthy children and the policies that will help reach the objective.
  • Reference to child maltreatment as one consequence of failing to meet the objective, rather than as the organizing principle.
  • Limited discussion of individual parents, and only in ways that support a role for society.

Reports from this project are available on the Prevent Child Abuse America website at For more information, contact:

Kevin Kirkpatrick, Vice President
Marketing & Communications and Advancement
Prevent Child Abuse America
(312) 663-3520 x110