• April 2019
  • Vol. 20, No. 3

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Strong and Thriving Families and Communities Are Our Best Prevention Strategy

Written by Jerry Milner

Every April, we pause to reflect on the importance of preventing child maltreatment. Across the nation events are held, stories are shared, and often calls to service or action are made. Our heartstrings are pulled by photos of children with forlorn expressions and sad eyes. For many, the month offers a look at life conditions and experiences that are much different from our own. To those outside the field—and unfortunately for a good number of those within the field—this causes a rush to judgement. How could a parent mistreat a beautiful child like the one on the poster, brochure, or film? What kind of person would do physical harm to a child of any age? It is unfathomable to most of us that a parent might hurt his or her child.

The prevailing narrative is that children are in foster care because they have bad parents that have hurt them.

That judgment is often inaccurate.

The truth is, most parents with children in foster care have not hurt their children physically. Data tell us that neglect is a factor for more than 60 percent of children placed in foster care. Physical abuse and sexual abuse are the cause for placement for approximately 15 percent of cases.

Neglect is not always intentional; it is largely preventable; and its effects can often be mitigated. This should give us hope and reason to believe we can help prevent maltreatment if we focus our energy and resources in the correct places. The Children's Bureau strongly believes that families and communities are the precise places we need to focus our energy and resources if we are serious about preventing child maltreatment. 

Neglect is not caused by poverty, but there are deep associations. Poverty can leave families vulnerable due to lack of resources, increased stressors, social isolation, and inadequate access to support services. Often, neglect occurs when a parent or parents simply do not have the skills or knowledge to meet their child's needs due to lack of experience or abilities that have been eroded due to a combination of other difficult circumstances that may be present in their lives.

Yet, in order to take the issue on, we rally around the idea of the bad parents who do harm and take pseudocriminal approaches. We rally around the idea of preventing a tragic event. We usually do not rally around confronting intergenerational cycles of trauma, concentrated poverty, and the lack of family and community supports. We do not rally around actions being guided by the social determinants of health, which we know impact the long-term health, resiliency, and well-being of children and families. In each of our professional positions, we touch upon the social determinants of health in one way or another. In each of our professional positions, our acts can either help alleviate or exacerbate trauma, and in each of our professional positions, we can rush to judgement or rush to provide support.

Life can be hard, even when we have all the resources we need, and not everyone has chosen the life circumstances they are confronting. Knowing that people are affected by what happens to them should influence our practices in child welfare, including child protective services investigations and interviews, legal representation, the manner in which parents and youth are treated by the bench, interactions with caseworkers, and parent-child engagement in case planning and placement decisions.

The availability of nonstigmatic, universally available basic family supports—including, for example, mentoring programs, after school programs for youth, Early Head Start programs coupled with parent skill building and/or adult education programs, nurse home visiting, and high-quality legal representation for parents and families—can serve to normalize the process of asking for help and offer the hope of strengthening protective factors in families and communities.

This prevention month, I ask that we all reflect on what we can do within our professional and private lives to help create the conditions for strong and thriving families and communities where children are free from harm.


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