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April 2018Vol. 19, No. 3Let's Make Every Month Prevention Month

Written by Jerry Milner, D.S.W., Associate Commissioner at the Children's Bureau.

Celebration months give us an opportunity to shine the national spotlight on important issues, draw attention to need, and identify best practices. I will do that to an extent, but my main intent is to call into question and challenge our commitment, both as a system and as individuals, to primary prevention of child maltreatment and to strengthening families as our core calling.

Of all celebration month topics, prevention, and especially primary prevention, may be the hardest for child welfare professionals to truly understand. We see examples that make sense to us in other fields (in medicine, for example, with vaccinations and universal precautions), but when it comes to our work, we seem to have greater difficulty applying the concept.

With over 4 million reports of child maltreatment annually, a foster care population that is steadily rising, and outcomes for children and families that fall short of our expectations, we cannot be happy with the current system. There are families who have been separated who would still be together with the right kinds of support, and while child protective services and foster care will always be needed, our funding and policies promote foster care as our main way of protecting children rather than supporting families and avoiding child maltreatment in the first place. 

We can change that, although the pathway to change is marked with impediments. Changing the federal funding structure from one that focuses disproportionately on foster care to one that balances spending on foster care and primary prevention will help and is a must. The Families First Act provides an initial step by allowing agencies to use some funding for specific prevention services for children once they are known to the child welfare system, but it stops short of providing states and counties with the ability to focus on the well-being of children and families before maltreatment leads them to child welfare's doors.

Around the country, I've been able to see primary prevention efforts in place that are helping strengthen families by making a wide array of support services universally available. Where it's happening, decision-makers; public, private, and faith-based partners; and community members have come together with a joint commitment to do better by children and families. Their shared visions and principles have been creatively put into action in their communities and are reducing foster care populations and incidents of maltreatment as well as realizing improvements in other child, family, and community health and well-being indicators.

Some of these efforts have been assisted by the flexibility of title IV-E waivers that allow states and counties to try new and different approaches and provide preventative services not otherwise available. That type of funding flexibility is key and should be institutionalized in our funding structure. But having funding flexibility alone will not bring the vision to life. That requires a recognition that primary prevention is our only reasonable, logical, and ethical way to strengthen families to care for their children in safe and healthy ways and a commitment to organize our work and partnerships accordingly.

During this year's prevention month, I challenge and invite all child welfare system participants, including government and private agencies, social workers, attorneys, judges, service providers, mental health professionals, substance abuse professionals, schools, the faith-based community, and community members themselves, to recognize primary prevention of child maltreatment as our common charge and collective responsibility. I challenge and invite all of us to stop narrowly defining our roles as reactors after harm has occurred and embrace the opportunity to truly prevent child maltreatment. I challenge you to make every month prevention month.