“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass
The great abolitionist wrote this in 1855.
We have known for a long time that many children who encounter repeated trauma, neglect and violence growing up, with no intervention, become adults with profound emotional and mental issues. This, in turn, creates enormous costs for society at large.
With the recognition of child maltreatment as a growing social concern, we have turned to a plethora of prevention programs over the past 60 years. But these programs tend to be underfunded, understaffed and, critically, under-committed.
They often don’t get the limelight and support of more high-profile causes such human trafficking, homelessness and drug rehabilitation. But it’s the “unsexy” work of investing in mitigation and prevention programs that will build stronger, more resilient adults and communities.
In other words, continued engagement with these programs is critically important for long-term success.
“It is worth noting the biggest obstacle to improving health throughout a community is often not the shortage of funds or the absence of ‘programs’ but rather the lack of commitment to do something about it,” wrote the authors of a CDC report, Essentials for Childhood: Creating Safe, Stable and Nurturing Relationships and Environments for All Children. “This means it is critical to build commitment as a foundation for any meaningful public health initiative, including safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children. You can expect sustained commitment to take time, resources, and persistence.”
A growing concern
The need to support and engage with prevention programs is even more important given recent trends: From 2011 to 2015, substantiated child maltreatment cases rose almost 4 percent and fatalities rose almost 6 percent, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More recent federal data released in 2020 show these numbers are on the rise again. As in previous years, rates of abuse and neglect are highest among infants and young children.
We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect because teachers and other authority figures are not observing students as much with widespread school closures.
More evidence-based programs
Communities are increasingly relying on evidence-based practices (EBPs) when implementing or choosing prevention programs to fund. These interventions use proven techniques backed by hard data to ensure the best outcomes for children and families and the highest return on public funding.
For example, the Royal Family Kids summer camps that are run by For The Children chapters nationwide may appear to be only “fun and games,” but they are actually based on evidence-based interventions to help heal children who have been victims of family-induced childhood trauma. We do this by leveraging best practices from trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) methodology.
We need more attention to these types of programs — and greater commitment to making them work for the long haul. It’s not enough to simply have these programs exist. They need to be continually funded, supported, talked about, and improved.
It takes a collaborative effort
The broader consequences of child abuse and neglect, whether perpetuated within families or outside of familial environments, has major repercussions for entire communities. These include crime, violence, homelessness, incarceration and drug abuse.
Therefore, the response requires a multifaceted, cross-sector approach for ensuring child well-being and safety. We need coordination and collaboration across child welfare systems, more investments in programs that strengthen families and communities, and more use of early and evidence-based interventions.
Most of all, we need a committed public health approach to child maltreatment so that even “boring” prevention programs get the support and engagement that they deserve.