Within Our Reach

Why the Conversation is About Strengthening Families this Child Abuse Prevention Month

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April 21, 2023

By: Verleaner R. Lane

April has long been recognized as Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year, the conversation around prevention has broadened to include family strengthening, in recognition of the importance of families and communities having access to resources that can lessen family stressors and prevent child abuse and neglect before it occurs.

Science shows us that children are more likely to thrive when their families have the economic and social supports that they need. Enabling these positive childhood experiences requires that we reimagine child welfare and focus instead on child and family well-being with upstream resources that can prevent child abuse and neglect before it occurs.

Federal and state policies that connect families to economic support services, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), housing assistance, and nutritional supplements have been shown to strengthen families and reduce child welfare interactions.

By shifting to a preventative child and family well-being system that offers upstream resources for families, the goal is to provide families with more services rather than more surveillance.

Federal policy is supporting this shift by authorizing more funding and more flexible funding for family-strengthening services through the Family First Prevention Services Act and the proposed reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).

What does a family-strengthening approach to child safety look like in practice? Answering that question is the impetus behind a national demonstration initiative launched by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime in 2019.

The project, Child Safety Forward, engaged five sites across the United States in a multi-year focus that included research, planning, and implementation around strategies aimed at reducing child injury and fatality from abuse and neglect. The sites selected are Cook County Health in Illinois; Indiana Department of Health; Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut; and Sacramento County, California’s Child Abuse Prevention Council. 

Each site is developing strategies that are unique and specific to their communities, honoring and reflecting the data they collected in the first year to identify community-led solutions that support resilient families and keep children safe in their homes. Each site is also working with a collaborative body of stakeholders and partners, including those with lived experience, to guide the work and is reviewing short- and long-term goals through an equity and diversity lens.

Our strategy includes bringing together a diverse group of community stakeholders that work with the most affected families in a variety of different settings. Our work has been focused on three Illinois counties: Cook, Peoria, and Vermilion, to identify the highest-risk geographic areas and target resources in these communities.

We began our efforts by using a data collection process that had been established earlier by Cook County Health in partnership with the Cook County Medical Examiner. The process automates data exchange between these two Cook County agencies allowing for the linkage of clinical data to mortality events among specific populations as determined by the medical examiner. Data sharing across these agencies is automated to identify risk factors for mortality among individuals experiencing homelessness, those impacted by the opioid epidemic, those with justice involvement, and the intersection of these experiences.

For Cook County, we reviewed approximately 300 sudden unexpected infant deaths over the past five years likely related to unsafe sleep conditions. We identified specific neighborhoods that had a higher rate of sudden unexpected infant death.

Based on these lessons learned, we are now able to appropriately target resources and educational interventions to protect families from these catastrophic events by creating the Safety for Children 0-5 self-paced educational curriculum and adding scenarios to the Simulation Labs and the MDT Training. We worked with pediatricians and community organizations to develop safe sleep messaging and interventions targeted to these high-risk neighborhoods. The program, led by 12 government and community agencies, including Project CHILD, aims to address sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), one of the leading causes of infant mortality.

Illinois Safe Sleep Support will focus on outreach and education to expand the community-based promotion of safe sleep practices, promote resources to improve safe sleep environments, identify SUID disparities, and address opportunities for improvement. The investments of this year-long campaign will continue to position Illinois as a leading state for children, families, and the early childhood workforce that supports them.

All of the strategies across the five Child Safety Forward sites share one common trait – they are predicated on demonstrating a public health approach to child and family well-being called for by the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. With a focus on increasing equity in systems that serve families, elevating parents into relationships of equal power, building protective factors, and supporting families who are having trouble weathering one or more of the storms impacting our country right now, each of the demonstration sites is working to create a body of knowledge about what works to reduce child fatalities.

As we celebrate Child Abuse Prevention, let us not forget that addressing community needs by giving families support prevents traumatic events from happening, has much more impact, and costs much less, than removing children from families and/or attempting to address the consequences of adversity after a child has grown up. 

We all have a stake in our kids’ future and shifting our focus from child welfare to child and family well-being will help us create a future where every child can thrive and reach their full potential.

Verleaner R. Lane, MA. is the Project Director for Project Child as a Visiting Project Specialist contracted employee within the Institute for Legal, Legislative, and Policy Studies (ILLAPS) at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Cook County Health established Project CHILD in 2019 to better understand and address infant deaths due to unsafe sleep conditions, or from abuse or neglect.

Disclaimer: This product was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-V3-GX-K005, 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 in this product 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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