Preventing Child Abuse by Strengthening Families: Reflecting on the Evolution of Prevention Approaches

Each April marks national Child Abuse Prevention Month, an effort to bring attention to preventing child abuse, as well as to elevate the needs and strengths of families and children. In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, many states and communities hold special events and run messaging campaigns, while federal agencies shine a spotlight on effective prevention strategies and the role that prevention should play in our overall approach to child and family well-being. Our partners at Prevent Child Abuse America use the pinwheel as a symbol of prevention and “great childhoods” – and each April “pinwheel gardens” are planted in communities across the country to symbolize a commitment to ensuring that children have great childhoods free of abuse and neglect.

This year, I was pleased to see the creative and positive ways that many of our federal, state and local partners recognized Child Abuse Prevention Month – including the use of our Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework to focus on family strengths. I also fielded questions from several people about the relationship between Strengthening Families and child maltreatment prevention, which led me to reflect on the shift toward focusing on universal family strengths that has recently taken place in the prevention field.

For the past 15 years, Strengthening Families has helped to shift the conversation about child abuse and neglect prevention toward a positive and strengths-based one, focusing on how we – as a society, in our communities and in child- and family-serving programs – can support all families to build the key protective factors that they need in order to thrive. Previously, prevention efforts focused on risk factors, and often inadvertently alienated the families they intended to help. These deficit-based efforts also fell short in that they didn’t give service providers or community members anything constructive to do to help families they encountered who needed some support, short of formal involvement with the child welfare system.

Strengthening Families has been a big player in “flipping the script” for many human service providers, who have seen that starting from strengths and approaching parents in a spirit of partnership and respect, yields better results. Recognizing and building on family strengths is the surest way to help families weather any storms they may face, and still provide safe, stable, nurturing care to their children.

This universal, strengths-based approach has been embraced by thousands of professionals, not just in the family support field (where it originated) but in early care and education, home visiting, child welfare and other child- and family-serving fields. Reflecting this shift, the federal Prevention Resource Guide has been structured around protective factors for several years, providing concrete guidance for service providers and other community partners to help families build their protective factors.

For us at CSSP, we are glad to see our partners around the country using Strengthening Families as the basis of their prevention efforts. Here are a few great examples of Prevention Month activities that incorporated a focus on protective factors this year:

  • Prevent Child Abuse America shared parenting tips related to the protective factors.
  • Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina organized a “5 Factors 5K” run/walk to engage community members in learning about the protective factors while also raising funds for prevention programs in the community. (See our article about this in our February 2018 newsletter)
  •  The Alaska Children’s Trust developed a set of tip sheets and posters, each focused on one of the five protective factors, and posted daily tips on social media throughout April.
  • The city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, declared April to be Strengthening Families Month, with a community celebration and recognition of prevention and family-strengthening activities

We are so gratified to see the focus on strengths and supporting families continuing to take hold across the country. CSSP believes that all children, youth and families deserve the chance to thrive. We also believe that goal will only be accomplished when we work with families as partners towards progress, acknowledging that all families have strengths and all families need support. We look forward to seeing this continued evolution of the prevention field, toward embracing parents as partners, recognizing family strengths and achieving better outcomes for children as a result. Learn more about our Strengthening Families work here and sign up for our newsletter here.

Cailin O’Connor is a senior associate at CSSP.