Preventing Child Abuse requires a societal
Abilene, TX – Being a parent is not easy.
There is no handbook, no how-to guide.
There are no rules, no regulations, no role models every parent can embody.
And if a community such as Abilene, which has seen the highest rates of child abuse and neglect per capita in the state for the past five years, is going to make a dent in reducing those numbers, that fact must be acknowledged and accepted, according to Dr. Beverly Fortson, a behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Being a parent is tough, and it’s important for all of us to support parents,” Fortson said. “Many times there’s this notion of a family bubble and we don’t want to interfere with what’s happening in a family, but in fact everyone’s children are going to do better when their neighbor’s children are doing well or when their friend’s children are doing well. Whatever we can do to support families to make sure everyone’s children do well is important.”
IT’S A SOCIETY THING
Fortson currently works on the Child Maltreatment and Sexual Violence Team in the Research and Evaluation Branch of the Division of Violence Prevention in the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Her team recently published an evidence-based guide of various strategies known to prevent child abuse and neglect, called “Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect: A Technical Package for Policy, Norm, and Programmatic Activities.”
The five doctors who developed the package examined the most effective strategies known to have the greatest impact in preventing child abuse and neglect, identifying five tactics with varying effect based on current evidence, Fortson said.
The strategies that have the most impact are ones that address societal problems, such as poverty and a lack of access to quality child care, Fortson said. Other strategies have less of an impact because they are likely to affect fewer people at a time.
Although research into how to prevent child abuse and neglect began more than 25 years ago, experts have only recently started looking at ways to support families and children at the community and societal level instead of just focusing on the parent-child relationship.
The Abilene-Wichita Falls region already may be doing this, which could explain why the area has the highest confirmed victim rate per 1,000 children in the state. The region has the highest reporting rate of abuse and neglect in the state, and caseworkers quickly make contact with children at risk of maltreatment, said Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Henry “Hank” Whitman.
A high reporting rate indicates increased awareness in the community and cooperation among the entities that investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, such as Child Protective Services, police and the Child Advocacy Center.
STRENGTHEN ECONOMIC SUPPORT
The strategy Fortson and her team identified as having the greatest effect on preventing child abuse and neglect is strengthening economic support to families. Poverty is one of the risk factors associated with child abuse because it creates a plethora of problems, Fortson said.
When parents – particularly single parents – do not have enough money for quality child care or adequate education, their children suffer.
If a single mother cannot afford day care and leaves her child with a boyfriend or someone not biologically related, the chances of child abuse increase.
Financial insecurity also enhances parental stress and depression, other risk factors for child abuse and neglect.
Strengthening household financial security and implementing family-friendly work policies appropriately can prevent child abuse and neglect by improving parents’ ability to meet their children’s basic needs, Fortson said.
One study cited in the technical package found that mothers who receive child support payments were 10 percent less likely to have a report of child abuse or neglect that was investigated by Child Protective Services.
“It’s something relatively small, but it could have a huge impact on rates of child abuse and neglect,” she said. “Tax credits for children and families are also something that has been tied to reductions in child poverty, and there is some forthcoming research from the CDC that suggests it may help in rates of child abuse and neglect also, particularly abusive head trauma.”
Additionally, family-friendly work policies, such as paid leave and flexible schedules, can provide financial security for families while allowing them to maintain a work-life balance.
“Parents who work irregular shift times, in contrast with those with more standard, regular shift times, experience greater work-family conflict and are more likely to be stressed, which is a risk factor for child physical abuse and neglect,” the package states.
On the other hand, parents with flexible and consistent work schedules that better accommodate their lives tend to experience lower rates of depression and stress.
CHANGE SOCIAL NORMS
Another proven approach to reducing child abuse and neglect is changing social norms that accept or allow indifference to violence, such as how parents discipline their children.
Public engagement and education campaigns that seek to shift the perceived responsibility for children from personal to shared and reframe the way people think and talk about child abuse and neglect can lead to declining rates of child abuse and neglect.
“There is some evidence that those types of strategies can change social norms to support parents, to support positive parenting,” Fortson said.
The package cites a campaign that promoted the benefits of not abusing children and understanding the cycle of abuse, which led some parents to stop yelling at, swearing at or putting their children down and kept them from fighting or arguing in front of their children.
Moreover, legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment can help establish norms about safe, more effective discipline strategies that are less harmful than harsh physical punishment, according to the guidebook.
Right now, no state limits the use of corporal punishment in the home, but some states have banned its use in foster care, day care, after-school care and juvenile detention facilities.
Fortson said that although many schools now don’t allow corporal punishment, legislators should be thinking about whether that can translate beyond educational institutions.
“There is some suggestion that parents’ lack of understanding of children’s developmental needs puts them at higher risk,” she said. “If they’re using harsh discipline — if you have a parent who thinks it’s OK to spank an infant or 1-year-old — hostile care-giving can lead to perpetrating child abuse and neglect.”
A comparison of five European countries, three of which had bans on corporal punishment and two that did not, found that bans were successful in decreasing overall rates of corporal punishment, the package states. Countries where corporal punishment was lawful had higher rates of all forms of corporal punishment.xperience lower rates of depression and stress.