April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which presents an opportunity to consider child welfare issues from a wider context before allegations of maltreatment come about. In 2013, 3,993 Nebraska children were victims of maltreatment (at a rate of about 8.6 per 1,000 children), marking a slight increase from the previous year. Keeping with national and historical trends, cases of neglect accounted for 90% of maltreatment in the state.
National research suggests that the most effective ways to address child maltreatment should reduce risk factors and promote protective factors for child and family well-being. Protective factors help to buffer and support at-risk families, while risk factors are stressful circumstances that increase the possibility of poor outcomes in families. A key aspect of both factors is that they are framed within a child’s individual, relational, and community context. This perspective acknowledges that children learn from and are shaped by their broader environments.
Here are a just a few examples of protective factors:
- Social-emotional competence
- Connections to social institutions and mentors
- Parenting competencies
- Adequate housing, food, transportation
- Economic opportunities
- Positive neighborhoods and school environments
And a few examples of risk factors:
- Maternal depression
- Persistent poverty
- Low self-esteem
- School or community violence
- Traumatic events
- Family or marital conflict
When we think about child welfare from this angle—her internal skills, as well as how she interacts with her family, peers, neighborhood, and society—it becomes clear that state policies addressing abuse and neglect should come into play well before a family comes to the attention of the Division of Children and Family Services.
Fortunately, there are many evidence-based interventions that can help. These range from programs such as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, those that encourage savings and asset-building, or child care subsidies that allow parents to work. Preventative measures that equip families and communities with the tools to support child well-being is an essential piece of child welfare policymaking.