The Power of Prevention
Guest post by: Karen Rush, Children’s Center Executive Director
Throughout my career, I have always had a passion for prevention! I became a psychologist and then a public-school educator because I believe in the power and necessity of early education, caring relationships, and supportive environments to help children reach their full potential. My approach to my work over the last 30 years has been inspired by Frederick Douglass’ eloquent statement that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
When I joined Children’s Center, I was especially excited about the impact that this organization has in preventing child maltreatment in our community, and beyond. The mission of Children’s Center is to end child abuse and neglect through assessment, treatment, and prevention. Our vision is to build a world where all children feel safe, valued, and heard. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, so we are highlighting the importance of prevention of abuse and neglect. Child maltreatment is a complex problem that impacts our entire society. Prevention of child abuse requires multiple activities, initiatives, and commitment from our entire community.
As a society, we have made strides in the last 30 years in reducing rates of child abuse and neglect through strong programs of prevention. We have come to understand the importance of identifying the root causes of the problem and highlighting opportunities for everyone in the community to do their part to keep children safe.
Notable examples include increased scrutiny of adults who work with children, increased awareness of and reduction of situations that can put children at risk, strengthening of caregiver skills and knowledge of child development, and the passage of laws that increase the responsibility of adults to teach children safety skills and to respond when confronted with concerns of abuse or neglect through mandatory reporting.
In Oregon, Erin’s law was passed in 2015. Erin’s Law has been adopted in 24 states and requires the development and adoption of child sexual abuse prevention programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in all Oregon public schools.
There is concern that the pandemic may have halted this progress. The data is just now coming out, but the initial indicators show that rates and severity of child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect may have increased during the pandemic. Given what we know about the risk factors associated with increased likelihood of abuse, such as social isolation, economic and familial stress, untreated mental health or substance abuse concerns, parental unemployment, and housing instability, it is sadly not a surprising outcome.
What we do now will make a difference. It can be challenging to dedicate resources to prevention when so much effort is required to respond to and ameliorate the negative impact of abuse that has already occurred. However, failing to focus on building stronger communities for kids will surely increase the likelihood of long-term consequences from the pandemic on children’s health and wellbeing. In contrast, there is ample evidence that investments in prevention strategies that enhance “protective factors” for children, families, and communities can change the trajectory and keep children safe from harm.
So, what are protective factors?
Protective factors are the attributes of children, families, and communities that promote health and well-being of children and decrease the likelihood that a child will be impacted by abuse or neglect. The United States Department of Health and Human Services recently published their 2021/2022 Prevention Resource Guide using a protective factors model that focuses on five important factors:
- Parental Resilience — the ability of parents to deal effectively with stress, adversity, or trauma;
- Social Connections – relationships with supportive friends, family members, and neighbors/community members;
- Concrete Support for Parents—access to support and resources when they are needed;
- Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development—understanding the social emotional, physical, and cognitive developmental needs of children at different points in time;
- Social and Emotional Skills in Children – the ability to communicate and express emotions in a healthy way and participate in positive relationships.
These important protective factors are all interrelated and improvements in one area are likely to lead to gains in all the factors. For example, when families have stronger social connections, they are more resilient and are more likely to be able to access parenting supports. Families with more access to support are more likely to have the knowledge and skills needed to help their children develop strong social and emotional competencies.
As a community, we can do a great deal to build protective factors right where we live. According to Prevent Child Abuse America (a national organization dedicated to prevention of child abuse and neglect), you can help build protective factors in your community by being a mentor to families in your community and by advocating for policies that support children and families.
Being a member of your community who is an educated and engaged advocate for children is especially important. As Margaret Mead famously said, “A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”
So please, check out the resources and training available at our website and sign up for one of our free Stewards of Children® community workshops. Your brief investment of one to two hours to learn about prevention of child abuse has the power to make a huge difference. When a community of neighbors and friends join forces, prepared with the knowledge, skills, and willpower to prevent children from experiencing harm, we can achieve our vision of building a world where all children feel safe, valued, and heard.