• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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Because Childhood Lasts a Lifetime

Written by Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, Prevent Child Abuse America

When I reflect on the last 20 years of science in the field of child abuse and neglect and other early adversity, I am struck by the confluence of neurobiological, psychosocial, and economic research that all find that the seeds of lifelong and even intergenerational health, well-being, and prosperity are founded in our earliest years. Yet, this same field in practice has developed overwhelmingly as one that is reactionary and rooted in the belief that early identification and trauma-informed responses are the gold standard. Our systems, policies, and appropriations have largely been designed to strengthen and support children and families only after they have found themselves in crisis. Indeed, the dominant narrative in this country has been that a "bad parent" maltreats their children and that children must be rescued from such "bad parents." However, science also tells us time and again that children are generally safer with their families than from their families, particularly when their families are strengthened and supported before they find themselves in crisis.

Children experience their world through their relationships. It is how we grow, learn, adapt, and succeed. We want these relationships to be as safe, stable, and nurturing as possible. Yet, we must always remember that relationships develop within a sociopolitical context that is either supportive or not of these healthy relationships. 

Child abuse and neglect is not inevitable; it can absolutely be prevented. Science also shows us that. 

When systems and stakeholders in communities and across sectors partner in purpose to keep families strong by reducing parental stress, thereby helping keep parents emotionally regulated, children do better because their relationships can be more regulated too. Put in even simpler terms, when parents and families do better, children do better! We know that most Americans want every child to grow up feeling secure and being safe to explore and access the many opportunities in their worlds. As such, the collective shift to a child and family well-being system underscores that we all have a role to play in ensuring that children and families thrive. 

Thriving Families, Safer Children allows the Children's Bureau, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, and us in the Prevent Child Abuse America family the great fortune of partnering with communities to create the conditions for strong families where children are free from harm. It allows us to continue to strive for a future in which children grow up happy, healthy, and prepared to succeed by focusing on a comprehensive public health approach with equity at its core. Together, we can and must actively dismantle the root causes of stress and anxiety, the inequities, that can lead to child abuse, neglect, and other adversity and trauma in the first place so that all children can meet their full health and life potential.

A coming together across child welfare, health, philanthropy, and other sectors can model at the national level what we know has been increasingly effective in communities for prevention and will necessarily create more positive outcomes for children. When we collectively call for and create conditions for health and health equity, through expansion of evidence-based home visitation programs like Healthy Families America, through family-friendly policies such as paid family and sick leave, and through providing concrete supports to families, for example, families and entire communities are strengthened and more resilient. 

Parenting is always challenging. But parenting during a global pandemic, acute racial and civil unrest, and increasing natural (and unnatural) disasters can be excruciatingly difficult! We need each other more than ever. We need each other in ways we never have before, or at least in ways that we didn't know we needed each other before. We need to act with empathy and kindness, propelled by science to transform the ways we are there for children and families.

Together, we can prevent child abuse, America, because childhood lasts a lifetime!


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