• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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Narrow the Front Door: Community Partnerships and Primary Prevention

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

In "Imagine a New Child Welfare System," Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner argues that the best way to prevent child abuse and neglect is to invest in the capacity of families to keep children safe so maltreatment doesn't occur in the first place.

Primary Prevention

Proactively trying to prevent harm to children from occurring is the focus of primary prevention, a set of strategies or programs to stop maltreatment before it happens that can be accessed by and benefit all members of the community (Children's Bureau, 2018; Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017). Examples of universal approaches to primary prevention include (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.):

  • Public service announcements that encourage positive parenting
  • Parent education programs and support groups that focus on child development and parenting
  • Family support and family strengthening programs that enhance the ability of families to access existing services and resources
  • Public awareness campaigns on how and where to report suspected child abuse and neglect

Historically, child welfare agencies have provided services to families at risk for potential abuse and neglect (secondary prevention) as well as to those who had already experienced abuse and neglect (tertiary prevention). Recently, the Children's Bureau began encouraging states to develop a continuum of prevention services, including primary prevention services, and to use the title IV-E prevention services program as a resource to operationalize their vision for prevention. The prevention plan developed by Washington, DC's, Child and Family Service Agency (DC CFSA) is a good example of this approach.

Working With Community Organizations

The prevention plan submitted by the DC CFSA was the first in the nation to be approved by the Children's Bureau. To develop the plan, agency leadership worked with community partners, sister agencies, and service providers to creäte a continuum of services, with primary prevention being those services beyond the "front door" of the child welfare agency (i.e., services that occur before families ever have contact with the agency). Part of the agency's overall vision was to "narrow the front door" by preventing unnecessary removal of children from their families. DC CFSA was able to build on existing strategies and relationships with community service providers to move forward quickly with its prevention plan (N. Craver, personal interview, June 6, 2019).

One strategy the agency uses in its work with community service providers is embedding agency staff at the offices of community providers. This allows DC CFSA staff members to develop relationships with community provider staff and with the families they serve, which results in stronger partnerships and better-quality interactions with families. As DC CFSA Deputy Director Robert Matthews notes, placing staff in positions where they can regularly interact with the community allows them to engage families where they feel safe and to offer preventive services to families based on what they learn (R. Matthews, personal interview, June 6, 2019).

Another strategy the agency uses is collaborating closely with community organizations that offer support services to local families. For example, East River Family Strengthening Collaborative (East River), located in Washington, DC's Ward 7, provides a variety of prevention services available to all families who live in the community, such as crisis intervention, life skills, workforce development, parenting empowerment, adolescent services, fatherhood support, youth activities, and more. These services help strengthen families so that they can thrive (S. Ibraheem, personal interview, June 6, 2019).

In 2017, East River began working with DC CFSA on a 2-year project called Safe Sleep DC that tackled child infant mortality in Washington, DC. East River continued the project after the initial 2 years ended. East River also offers an expansive list of programming and assistance supported by flex funding from DC CFSA to connect with and help families so that they can get ahead of difficult situations before they come to the attention of the agency (S. Ibraheem, personal interview, June 6, 2019).

By collaborating with community organizations and getting to know the families they serve before those families come to the attention of child protective services, agencies can work to promote primary prevention, "narrow the front door," and keep children at home with their families.

To learn more about partnering with the community to meet the needs of children, youth, and families, check out the Center for States' podcast series How We Partner With the Community to Improve Service Options.


Children's Bureau. (2018). Reshaping child welfare in the United States to focus on strengthening families through primary prevention of child maltreatment and unnecessary parent-child separation. U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2017). Child maltreatment prevention: Past, present, and future. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). Framework for preventing child maltreatment. U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. 


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