Child abuse and neglect prevention often invokes the notion of children's trust funds, Community Based Child Abuse Prevention, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and other funding streams that support the critical work of preventing the abuse and neglect of our nation's children. The work of the professionals who manage these funds is critical to the overall ability of our nation to promote the healthy development of children. These dedicated professionals, however, cannot, and should not, solely be held accountable for a responsibility that belongs to every adult and community in America.
Our thinking about prevention must shift from how it is paid for to a comprehensive national policy to ensure that all children have the ability to live in safe, stable and loving environments regardless of where the child lives, attends school or how much income the family has. A blueprint to enable this policy change involves a 180-degree shift in thinking from policies that deal with abuse and neglect after they take place to policies that focus on preventing their occurrence. To accomplish this, six steps must occur:
* Step One: Help the public recognize and understand the connection between child abuse and neglect and other social ills;
* Step Two: Establish a national child abuse and neglect prevention policy;
* Step Three: Analyze existing funding sources and develop fiscal policies to support activities that prevent child abuse and neglect;
* Step Four: Cultivate multiple and diverse champions to rally the public support necessary to change policies to prevent child abuse and neglect;
* Step Five: Identify and strengthen governmental planning and quality assurance activities that support a national policy on child abuse and neglect prevention; and,
* Step Six: Ensure effective state and local planning and implementation of child abuse and neglect prevention strategies.
Our failure as a nation to implement effective policies and strategies to prevent child abuse and neglect costs taxpayers $104 billion per year and does not consider the personal toll on the victimized child. Research shows that child abuse and neglect have life-long consequences not only for the victimized child, but also for the nation. These studies show a strong correlation between child abuse and neglect and debilitating and chronic health consequences, delinquency, criminal behavior, mental health illness, drug dependency and lower academic performance. Child abuse and neglect are serious national problems affecting families, regardless of wealth.
Many recent initiatives and efforts have focused on improving the child protection system. These efforts have resulted in more people looking at prevention strategies as a means to decrease the escalating need and costs incurred for services after the abuse and neglect have occurred. These efforts also provide an opportunity to view the child protection system as a part of a continuum that must include services at the front end. By establishing a national policy on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, coordinated state service systems can be developed that promote healthy child and family development and ultimately a higher quality of community functioning.
Since 1993, market research indicates that more than nine out of 10 Americans view child abuse and neglect as a serious problem. Research as recent as March 2008 indicates that 59 percent of Americans view child abuse and neglect as a problem in their community and 29 percent view child abuse and neglect as a problem in their family. Forty-eight percent who believe that child abuse and neglect can be prevented had diverse opinions on how to prevent maltreatment. Many of the suggestions focused on criminal punishment of the adult perpetrator or other after-the-fact solutions, but not strategies that prevent the abuse or neglect from occurring. The same research is clear that child abuse and neglect prevention messaging must communicate practical solutions that engage the public without leaving them feeling overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness.
In 2007, a United Nations Children's Fund report found the United States was ranked 20th in child well-being out of the world's 21 wealthiest nations. The measures used by UNICEF represent the areas of education, health and safety, material, and family and peer well-being; measures that can reduce the potential for child maltreatment. We, as a nation, have responded decisively whenever our economic stability or national security has been threatened. We have not responded with the same sense of urgency and resolve when our nation's children are abused or neglected. This situation unfortunately may not be that surprising since the United States does not have a comprehensive policy or strategy to prevent the abuse and neglect of our nation's children.
The public recognizes that child abuse and neglect should be prevented, but there is no consistent understanding of child abuse and neglect prevention. Clarity in message is critical to ensure that we focus on the same issue consistently so we as a nation can respond effectively to the needs of children and families before abuse or neglect ever happens. To address the issue, child abuse and neglect prevention must be understood uniformly and the message must be to prevent child abuse and neglect from ever happening.
To implement a national child abuse and neglect prevention policy, it is essential that funding streams be assessed and then realigned. In local implementation activities, policy and funding decisions would be governed by the national policy so financing decisions are made that:
(1) promote the national policy, and
(2) are accompanied by clearly identified, measurable and results-oriented strategies. To develop this financing system, we must broaden the current service system for children and families to fully incorporate services that focus on preventing child abuse and neglect. The challenge is how to transform the current service system that responds to child abuse and neglect after it happens into coordinated systems that provide services to all families before child abuse and neglect occurs.
It is neither feasible nor advisable to simply transfer funding from services and programs that are offered after the child abuse or neglect has occurred. It would shortchange children who have experienced abuse or neglect and make a bad situation for them worse. This transformation can only be accomplished through state-by-state assessment and planning and implementation based upon the national policy and measured by thoughtfully established national outcomes. When funding criteria are not based on clear public policy, the results achieved from the use of the funds most likely will not advance the policy. The absence of a consistent national policy hampers communities in developing local implementation and financing strategies and attaining positive results for children and families. Current champions and advocates of children must identify other leaders who can promote the implementation and sustainability of the national policy to prevent child abuse and neglect. An administration can provide leadership, but it cannot be the sole voice for the answers.
Many existing government efforts that benefit children can be used to promote and support a clearly stated national policy to prevent child abuse and neglect. One of the most common, and perhaps underutilized, strategies is the use of state plans. These are documents used by states to draw down federal matching funds such as Title IV-B (child welfare services), Title IV-E (foster care), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to improve family economics, Medicaid, Maternal and Child Health and the Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems plan. Strong federal guidance and appropriate financial incentives should be established so states develop these plans in a manner that integrates cross-disciplinary planning and service delivery systems, and focus on nationally approved child well-being outcomes (not output indicators) that prevent child abuse and neglect. At the same time, quality-assurance processes such as the federal Child and Family Services Review required by the Adoption and Safe Families Act could be expanded in its prevention of child abuse and neglect to hold accountable, not the child welfare system, but the entire state.
With a national policy in place, real and sustainable change then can be initiated on a state-by-state basis. The focus should be on each state implementing comprehensive, evidence-based, community-driven child abuse and neglect prevention strategies based upon the state's needs. With an emphasis on healthy children, family and community development, a state could develop benchmarks and measures to assess progress and demonstrate to the public what is being accomplished. These plans cannot merely be a written document; they should be a well-developed process that encourages states to look at inter-agency policy integration, shared funding among the various service delivery systems, information sharing and common goals. These state plans must be a methodology to view prevention services as more than a funding stream or specific program, and instead, as a new way of thinking about the long-term safety, health, growth, development and well-being of our nation's children. State prevention planning provides a blueprint for our nation to attain global leadership in the ethical treatment of children.
Jim Hmurovich is the president and chief executive officer of Prevent Child Abuse America.…