Abuse and Neglect: Promising Prevention Strategies

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Promising Prevention Strategies

Several researchers suggest that the more universal or broadly targeted prevention efforts have greater success in strengthening a parent’s or child’s protective factors than in eliminating risk factors, particularly for parents or children at highest risk (Harrell, Cavanagh, & Sridharan, 1999; Chaffin, Bonner, & Hill, 2001; MacLeod & Nelson, 2000). Others argue that prevention strategies are most effective when they focus on a clearly defined target population with identifiable risk factors (Guterman, 2001; Olds et al., 2007). In truth, a wide range of prevention strategies has demonstrated an ability to reduce child abuse and neglect reports as well as other child safety outcomes such as reported injuries and accidents. In other cases, prevention efforts have strengthened key protective factors associated with a reduced incidence of child maltreatment such as improved parental resilience; stronger social connections; positive child development; better access to concrete supports such as housing, transportation, and nutrition; and improved parenting skills and knowledge of child development (Horton, 2003).

Public Awareness Efforts: In the years immediately following Kempe’s 1962 article on battered child syndrome, public awareness campaigns were developed to raise awareness about child abuse and to generate political support for legislation to address the problem. Notably, the nonprofit organization Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America; formerly, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse) joined forces with the Ad Council to develop and distribute nationwide a series of public service announcements (PSAs) for television, radio, print, and billboards. Between 1975 and 1985, repeated public opinion polls documented a sharp increase in public recognition of child abuse as an important social problem and steady declines in the use of corporal punishment and verbal forms of aggression in disciplining children (Daro & Gelles, 1992). More recently, broadly targeted prevention campaigns have been used to alter parental behavior. For example, the U.S. Public Health Service, in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Association of SIDS and Infant Mortality Programs, launched its “Back to Sleep” campaign in 1994 designed to educate parents and caretakers about the importance of placing infants on their backs to sleep as a strategy to reduce the rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Notable gains also have been achieved with universal education programs to prevent shaken baby syndrome (Dias, Smith, deGuehery, Mazur, & Shaffer, 2005; Barr et al., 2009).

Child Sexual Assault Prevention Classes: In contrast to efforts designed to alter the behavior of adults who might commit maltreatment, a category of prevention programs emerged in the 1980s designed to alter the behavior of potential victims. Often referred to as child assault prevention or safety education programs, these efforts present children with information on the topic of physical abuse and sexual assault, how to avoid risky situations, and, if abused, how to respond. A key feature of these programs is their universal service delivery systems, often being integrated into school curricula or into primary support opportunities for children (e.g., Boy Scouts, youth groups, recreation programs). Although certain concerns have been raised regarding the appropriateness of these efforts (Reppucci & Haugaard, 1989), the strategy continues to be widely available.

Parent Education and Support Groups: Educational and support services delivered to parents through center-based programs and group settings are used in a variety of ways to address risk factors associated with child abuse and neglect. Although the primary focus of these interventions is typically the parent, quite a few programs include opportunities for structured parent-child interactions, and many programs incorporate parallel interventions for children. For instance, programs may include:

  • Weekly discussions for 8 to 14 weeks with parents around topics such as discipline, cognitive development, and parent-child communication
  • Group-based sessions at which parents and children can discuss issues and share feelings
  • Opportunities for parents to model the parenting skills they are learning
  • Time for participants to share meals and important family celebrations such as birthdays and graduations

Educational and support services range from education and information sharing to general support to therapeutic interventions. Many of the programs are delivered under the direction of social workers or health-care providers.

A meta-analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009) on training programs for parents of children ages birth to 7 identified components of programs that have a positive impact on acquiring parenting skills and decreasing children’s externalizing behaviors. These components included the following:

  • Teaching parents emotional communication skills
  • Helping parents acquire positive parent- child interaction skills
  • Providing parents opportunities to demonstrate and practice these skills while observed by a service provider

Home Visitation: As noted earlier, home visitation has become a major strategy for supporting new parents. Services are one-on-one and are provided by staff with professional training (nursing, social work, child development, family support) or by paraprofessionals who receive training in the model’s approach and curricula. The primary issues addressed during visits include:

  • The mother’s personal health and life choices
  • Child health and development
  • Environmental concerns such as income, housing, and community violence
  • Family functioning, including adult and child relationships
  • Access to services

Specific activities to address these issues may include:

  • Modeling parent-child interactions and child management strategies
  • Providing observation and feedback • Offering general parenting and child development information
  • Conducting formal assessments and screenings
  • Providing structured counseling

In addition to working with participants around a set of parenting and child development issues, home visitors often serve as gatekeepers to the broader array of services families may need to address various economic and personal needs. Critical reviews of the model’s growing research base have reached different conclusions. In some cases, reviewers conclude that the strategy, when well implemented, does produce significant and meaningful reduction in child-abuse risk and improves child and family functioning (AAP, Council on Child and Adolescent Health, 1998; Geeraert, Van den Noortgate, Grietens, & Onghena, 2004; Guterman, 2001; Hahn, et al., 2003; Stoltzfus & Lynch, 2009). Others are more sobering in their conclusions, noting the limitations outlined earlier (Chaffin, 2004; Gomby, 2005).

Community Prevention Efforts: The strategies previously outlined focus on individual parents and children. Recently, increased attention is being paid to prevention efforts designed to improve the community environment in which children are raised. Among other things, these efforts institute new services, streamline service delivery processes, and foster greater collaboration among local service providers. This emerging generation of “community child abuse prevention strategies” focuses on creating supportive residential communities where neighbors share a belief in collective responsibility to protect children from harm and where professionals work to expand services and support for parents (Chaloupka & Johnson, 2007; Doll, Bonzo, Sleet, Mercy, & Haas, 2007; Farrow, 1997; Mannes, Roehlkepartain, & Benson, 2005).

In 2009, prevention researchers Daro and Dodge examined five community child abuse prevention programs that seek to reduce child abuse and neglect. Their review concluded that the case for community prevention is promising. At least some of the models reviewed by Daro and Dodge show the ability to reduce reported rates of child abuse, reduce injury to young children, improve parent-child interactions, reduce parental stress, and improve parental efficacy. Focusing on community building, such programs can mobilize volunteers and engage diverse sectors within the community, including first responders, the faith community, local businesses, and civic groups. This mobilization exerts a synergistic impact on other desired community outcomes such as economic development and better health care.

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Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2011). Child maltreatment prevention: Past, present, and future. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

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