By Sue Williams
While April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, preventing abuse is year-long work. However, April does give us the opportunity to change the narrative around how we talk about and address childhood adversity.
Child welfare systems have traditionally focused on responding to allegations and incidents of child abuse and neglect, stepping in once warning signs or problems are already visible. But what would it look like to have a system dedicated to supporting families along the way so that problems are prevented before they occur? This is the idea behind federal policies, including the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, that devote more resources to prevention and/or support services that help families before abuse or neglect occurs. The idea is to remodel “child protection” systems into “child and family well-being” systems.
These shifts are long overdue. We now understand, thanks to the brain science explosion in the 90s, that children’s early experiences literally get built into the brain’s architecture. So, ensuring healthy, nurturing environments for infants and toddlers leads to healthy, thriving children and adolescents who are equipped to learn and fulfill their potential. A strong emphasis on promoting family wellbeing is also an important part of addressing racial injustices in the child welfare system – like the troubling fact that a disproportionate number of children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are children of color.
These new changes are easy to grasp at one level: It’s better to help families steer clear of issues altogether than it is to grapple with problems already underway. However, communicating these shifts in policies can be a challenge because the concept of prevention can be abstract. How do you talk about a problem that didn’t happen?
Based on the guidance from FrameWorks Institute, a national nonprofit who studies people’s responses to how we talk about social issues, we know that building support for preventing childhood adversity will require all of us who work in the child welfare space to reframe childhood adversity in three key ways: 1) as a public issue, 2) as a preventable issue, and, 3) as a solvable issue.
What do we mean by making it a public issue? It means we should emphasize that we all have a stake and a role in addressing this issue. If we make it a story about “us” rather than “them” we get to the heart of a collective responsibility. We all have a voice in the policies that shape family wellbeing – and we have a responsibility to speak up in support of policies that put good jobs, safe neighborhoods, consistent health care, and great schools within reach for every family. It means that instead of sharing heartbreaking stories about incidents of child maltreatment, we highlight paths to prevention – like the recent research from Chapin Hall showing that providing families with concrete supports like food, cash, and housing both strengthens communities and protects children.
To reframe child adversity as preventable rather than inevitable, we need to find ways to talk about prevention that make it more real. To get there, we have to consistently focus on aspects of families’ broader environments that we can change at a wide scale through policy and programs. For example, by talking about the “overload” of stresses that families face, such as financial strain, lack of access to health care, or under-resourced neighborhoods, it brings the focus to systems – the causes of the overloading – rather than the actions or situations of individual families. By focusing the conversation on the causes of family strain we can help people relate and set up a conversation about how to lessen the load or manage the weight. The more we can think and talk about the social conditions that contribute to neglect and abuse, the more we can boost the sense that problems can be prevented.
It is equally important to emphasize that solutions exist and to champion programs that work. While the body of evidence-based practices is still growing, there are an expanding number of resources available to help support families in times of need, including home visiting programs, community and parent cafes, and Family Resource Centers. Children’s Trust is actively involved in building and supporting a networked system of Family Resource Centers in our state.
We also need to be aware of the importance of centering racial and economic justice – and not inadvertently suggesting that childhood adversity is caused by people of color or people experiencing poverty. We need ways to speak with a shared voice – despite the fact that our growing field uses different lenses and different languages to think and talk about childhood experiences.
Most of all, we need a common commitment to aspirational, solutions-oriented storytelling. Too often, we fall back on leading with bleak facts and upsetting stories that can spark fatalistic attitudes or cause people to turn away out of discomfort. Framing science challenges us to move mindsets beyond narrow conceptions of “problems children experience” to an expansive vision of how to do right by kids.
By embracing these recommendations and reframing childhood adversity as a public issue, a preventable issue and a solvable issue, we can continue to support a shift from child welfare systems to child wellbeing systems that better serve all families. Child protection systems are important but represent only one node in a larger network of systems that can promote child and family well-being and unlock children’s full potential. That’s a story worth telling.