Within Our Reach

Parent Engagement is Essential to Reducing Child Abuse and Neglect

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March 16, 2023

By: Regina Dyton and Chavon Campbell

When Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn. was chosen by the U.S. Department of Justice for a demonstration initiative to develop strategies and responses to address child fatalities from abuse or neglect, we didn’t expect the transformative nature of this project.

We began our efforts on the Child Safety Forward initiative three years ago with research and data analysis that showed that Hartford was an outlier when compared to Conn. and national child maltreatment rates. From 2015-2017 Hartford averaged 17.6 substantiated cases of child maltreatment per 1,000 children, nearly double the state and national rates during the same period. This and other disparities evident in the data demonstrated the need for a greater understanding of the underlying causes of disparities and risks for child maltreatment, particularly around prevention messaging for communities of color.

With a guiding principle of “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” we sought to bring parents together to form a Parent Engagement Work Group that would work closely with a multidisciplinary team of stakeholders composed of state agencies and community-based organizations to better understand the underlying issues.

 We recruited parents from existing relationships in the community, with the Greater Hartford Family Advocacy Center at Saint Francis Hospital, and with members of the Hartford Parent University (HPU), a grassroots organizing agency that trains and supports parents to advocate for quality education. We met with state agency leaders, child abuse pediatricians, and community agency directors to review the data and better understand the risks for child maltreatment that contributed to injuries and fatalities.

Perhaps the greatest area of learning on this topic was the parents’ perceptions of risks. Early in the formation of the Parent Engagement Work Group, parents made it clear that they wanted to address issues beyond child abuse and neglect by caregivers, noting that there are many environmental, systemic, and other types of threats to the safety of children. Examples included non-caregiver abuse and exploitation, drugs, suicide, and community violence, in short, all threats to child safety and well-being.

This led parents to focus on the ways in which they receive child safety education, which in most cases, was only mandated by child protection agencies after an allegation of abuse or neglect, leading parents to view child safety education as reactive and punitive. They wondered if other communities or families had better access to comprehensive and preventative child safety education.

The biggest impact came when the parents were presented with the data that showed that the death rate of Black children due to abuse and neglect was two times that of white children.

They asked how people who were not members of their communities (not just racially/ethnically but socio-economically and culturally) knew more about their collective reality than they themselves and made plans for them without communicating with those directly affected.

And while child fatality data is released publicly by state agencies, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of trust between families and state agencies, that data rarely reaches the populations who need it most.

Parents asked if and how they could be more involved in planning and carrying out research on their own communities and then using that data to plan improvements for child, family, and community well-being.

Based on their findings, the parents came together to develop a comprehensive educational guide to teach parents about multiple topics related to child well-being. Entitled “From Pain to Parenting,” the guide outlines a series of training workshops, led by parents, on a range of topics related to child well-being, including unsafe sleep, domestic violence, sexual abuse and assault, mental health, firearm safety and gun violence, and disabilities.

The Child Safety Forward Hartford initiative will serve as a springboard for establishing ongoing planning and action on preventing child maltreatment fatality and near fatality. The project will transfer from Saint Francis Hospital to the Institute for Community Research (ICR) as the lead agency, with Voices of Women of Color and Hartford Parent University as partners. ICR will train a group of parents to design and implement their own research and will conduct sessions to help parents understand data and advocate for data-sharing with communities. 

Hartford Parent University will provide ongoing training on topics identified by parents as they relate to Hartford Public Schools, especially regarding children with disabilities and children belonging to other marginalized communities. Voices of Women of Color will provide training in community organizing and advocacy and will lead the recruitment of a parent engagement group for each of Hartford’s thirteen neighborhoods.

The Hartford Child Safety Forward site was unique among the other demonstration sites in focusing on parent and community organizing and the purposeful shifting of power to those most affected. By combining the disciplines of research, community organizing, and prevention education, we were able to engage parents in a meaningful dialogue about the things that matter to them most – the safety and well-being of their children.

By elevating their voices and experiences and authentically shifting power to these parents, we ultimately learned far more from them about how to prevent abuse and neglect and build a Child and Family Well-being System that can strengthen families and enable all children to thrive. Our field will be all the richer for it.

Regina S. Dyton, MSW, served as principal investigator and project manager for the Child Safety Forward Project in Hartford. Chavon Campbell, MBA, is director of compliance for Hartford Communities That Care and project manager for the Pain to Parenting Project.

 This commentary was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-V3-GX-K005 Reducing Child Fatalities and Recurring Injuries Caused by Crime Victimization, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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