Societal Interventions to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect

Article excerpt

Child abuse and neglect can be prevented and the welfare of children promoted by activities and initiatives aimed at communities, states, countries, and even the international community. These societal level prevention efforts are key components in a comprehensive response to what is considered a "child protection emergency" [U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect 1993]. Prevention requires an "increased social investment in family and community" [Wachtel 1994].

The theoretical framework of this article is an ecological developmental one [National Research Council 1993]. Both risk factors and protective factors are present at the level of the individual, the family, the community and environment, the culture, and the society, and can interact in myriad ways to result in different types and combinations of child maltreatment. Child maltreatment is an extreme on a continuum, a severe manifestation of dysfunction in the interplay between a child's development and the conditions and relationships that affect that development. These complexities make it difficult to promote social change, and they challenge our efforts to devise, conduct, and disseminate research on societal interventions and initiatives. We do not claim to have identified all of the complexities here. Rather, we hope to highlight certain key factors and to point up several prevention directions in a systems context. The analysis of the effects of poverty, neighborhood, culture, parenting practices, and multiple stressors applies more to physical and emotional abuse and neglect than to sexual abuse of children. Another article of comparable scope would be necessary to encompass the prevention of child sexual maltreatment using the ecological developmental perspective.

This framework offers various possible ways to look at research priorities in prevention at the community and societal levels. This article deals with three areas that have potential for broad, societal level intervention efforts: (1) increasing economic self-sufficiency of families, (2) enhancing communities and their resources, and (3) discouraging corporal punishment and other forms of violence.

Although research priorities for societal interventions differ from those of more sharply targeted prevention activities, two fundamental research questions characterize all prevention efforts, regardless of whether an activity is directed at identified children and families, broad sectors of the population, or macrosystems. The first question deals primarily with evaluation research: What approaches work? The second question deals with policy and systems issues: What is necessary to initiate and sustain effective prevention activities?

It can also be informative to compare the United States with other countries where macrolevel differences in law, administration, services, and culture prevail. The way children are treated might be demonstrably related to particular factors in different countries. The U.S. and Canada, for example, have much in common in demographics, culture, and media, but they also differ critically in health care and social services. These differences may be related to Canada's lower child death rates and teen pregnancy rates [Canadian Institute of Child Health 1989]. Other countries have greater differences in the amount and allocation of resources, and the impact this has on children. International research on societal factors promoting or preventing child maltreatment is limited. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child affords a framework for broad involvement in social change to support parents and families and to prevent maltreatment of children. International research on the implementation and impacts of the Convention can yield information on a wide range of societal level initiatives in behalf of children.

In discussing research priorities for societal level prevention, it is important to recognize their link with research on other prevention and intervention efforts directed toward child maltreatment and other social problems. …