August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Shifting the Lens Toward Prevention During a Time of Crisis
Written by Cara Kelly, Julie Fliss, and Elaine Stedt from the Children's Bureau, Office on Child Abuse and Neglect
There has never been a more important time to focus on improving the overall health and well-being of our nation's children and families. During even the most stable times, stress on families is not uncommon across the United States. The impact of the current crisis has increased the vulnerability of families as we collectively face new stressors, including physical health risks, school and business closures, family isolation, and economic instability. All of this is occurring within a context of uncertainty, causing children to be stressed as well, as they attempt to cope with unfamiliar routines, disruptions to their everyday lives, and confusion regarding changes in the world around them. For some parents and caregivers, the negative impact of stressful circumstances can wear down on a parents' ability to care for their children safely or meet their needs adequately. Families who are already struggling with poverty, social isolation, and trauma may be particularly vulnerable to current stressors. However, the current crisis presents a risk for loss of parental resilience, even in previously healthy, stable, and protective families. While risk levels increase, professionals in the field have expressed concern that harm to children may be concealed, as school closures and stay-at-home orders have reduced the opportunity for some professionals to encounter or become aware of children who may be victims of child abuse or neglect.
What we know from preliminary reports from child welfare agencies in the United States is that rates of maltreatment reporting have been significantly reduced. This reduction has looked different across the country, with states and tribal jurisdictions reporting decreases ranging from 11 percent to 60 percent compared with the same time last year. Some experts and commentators believe that lack of contact with mandatory reporters who are responsible for the majority of reports made to child welfare agencies across the country explains the decline, and they predict that abuse will increase and go unreported. However, we have no current data to support an increase in child abuse at this point, only a decrease in reporting. States and jurisdictions have responded to this concern by encouraging community members to be diligent in identifying instances of potential child abuse and neglect and reporting this information to authorities when there are concerns about the safety of a child. On the other hand, child welfare agencies are only one small piece of protecting children and supporting families, as children thrive within the context of their family and community. When we focus on families as part of a broader community, we have an opportunity to focus our efforts on preventing child abuse and neglect before it occurs, by supporting children and their families and mitigating risks.
In addition to reporting a reduction of reports, there is a growing concern that states and tribal jurisdictions will experience an influx of reports once physical distancing restrictions are relaxed. While there are anecdotal reports and social, psychological, and family theories that suggest an increase in the potential for family violence after significant disruptive events (Curtis et al. 2000), this anticipated surge is not inevitable. On the contrary, current circumstances provide an opportunity to focus on how child maltreatment is preventable. Together, we can collectively support families and help them build or maintain resilience to weather the difficult challenges that arise and prepare them to deal with stresses that can become toxic and deplete their protective capacities. The present time is a prime opportunity for neighbors, friends, community members, and mandatory reporters to check in on and offer support to families and thus help in the prevention effort during this difficult time of need and beyond.
Disaster and emergency situations often prompt an outpouring of organized support, and the current situation offers clear evidence of this. Child and family-serving agencies, including the Children's Bureau, have moved quickly to identify strategies that would allow them not only to continue services they had been providing but also to address newly identified needs as a result of the crisis. Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention (CBCAP) programs (authorized by title II of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act) are an example of comprehensive support available to children and families. One of few federally funded programs that focus on prevention of harm to children, CBCAP programs offer an existing infrastructure to provide effective assistance and promote family stabilization during this time of considerable uncertainty.
Opportunities for Innovation Through CBCAP
Examples of services funded by CBCAP include voluntary home visiting programs, parenting programs, family resource centers, respite and crisis care, parent mutual support, and other family support programs. Because these services are traditionally conducted in person, CBCAP programs have taken steps to maintain parent education and support activities using telecommunication strategies, when possible. Many states are now conducting virtual home visits, including those targeting fathers, and have maintained successful engagement of parents, which they attribute to the participant's familiarity with technology. When video conferencing is not an option, community providers make weekly phone calls to check in with families, and some have continued in-person interactions while taking necessary precautions. These connections have helped parents and caregivers to maintain critical social and emotional supports while physical distancing. Georgia, Massachusetts, and Texas are a few of many states offering these supports.
In addition to supporting families remotely, CBCAP programs are working tirelessly to increase families' awareness of, and access to, concrete supports to address their immediate needs, such as food, housing, clothing, and others. With the significant increase in unemployment resulting from the crisis and more families struggling to meet their basic needs, these supports and resources are more critical now than ever. States have reported an increase of requests at food pantries, including those from families who had never used the services before. Some programs have started delivering food to enhance opportunities for safe access for families. CBCAP programs are also using funds to help families with infants and toddlers to access diapers, wipes, and formula, with some targeting tribal populations, which have been impacted particularly hard by the crisis. Another concrete support has included assistance with rent and utilities and unemployment counseling, as well as books, games, and other activities for children who are home from school and day care.
A Vision Forward
It is important that we look to these examples of support for children and families for valuable lessons as we plan for life after the crisis. While many have referred to the current situation as "the new normal," it remains fluid, leaving the possibility to better define what we want the new normal to be for our families, communities, and nation. Now is the time for us to capitalize on the daily acts of caring and support for children and families and make this a norm rather than an anomaly. It is the time to recognize the sense of belonging we feel when we share the struggles inherent in parenting and to celebrate requests for help as demonstrations of strength, rather than of vulnerability. It is our collective responsibility to offer encouragement and assistance to parents and caregivers, not just during times of crisis but also as part of our social norms.
The Children's Bureau has long prioritized efforts to strengthen families by connecting them with supports that prevent harm to children and the need for formal child welfare involvement. This pandemic has brought additional challenges in protecting young people from abuse and neglect and has revealed gaps in our existing approach. However, most importantly, it has highlighted the capacity of communities to come together for the common good and has emphasized the vision of the Children's Bureau to reorient the child welfare system to focus more on strengthening families to prevent maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children from their families.
"Our current crisis has illuminated the pre-existing weakness of a system designed to react rather than to proactively focus on the value and capacity of parents to care for their children. We all have an immediate opportunity to be a support to families, children, and young people who may be struggling—to show them that we care—to check in on those who may be isolated and under stress—to offer help."
—Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner, Children's Bureau
Focusing our efforts on a proactive approach prevents us from having to wait for the child welfare system to respond after a child has been maltreated and allows us to focus on what families need to thrive. Moving forward, we can emerge from this crisis stronger together by concentrating our efforts on transforming our existing child welfare system into a child well-being system that brings together collaborative efforts that support families, mitigate risks, and allow families to thrive.
Curtis, T., Miller, B., Berry, E. (2000). "Changes in reports and incidence of child abuse following natural disasters." Child Abuse and Neglect, 24(9), 1151-1162.