Child, Family, and Community Well-Being

Why the Focus This Child Abuse Prevention Month is on Protective Factors

Avatar photo Amy Templeman
March 28, 2024

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Since 1983, when Child Abuse Prevention Month was first established, this national recognition has coalesced efforts to bring communities together to serve children and their families in meaningful, impactful ways that provide families what they need to thrive through both calm and challenging times.

Child abuse prevention efforts have evolved over the years. For example, when the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released its final report in 2016, it was intended to equip policymakers, practitioners, and advocates with the tools needed to fundamentally reform child welfare. It outlined a vision for a 21st-century child welfare system predicated on a proactive public health approach that was framed by greater leadership and accountability, decisions grounded in better data and research, and multidisciplinary support for families.

In October 2019, the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime launched the Child Safety Forward initiative, with technical assistance provided by Social Current, to test strategies based on the commission’s report for a public health approach to reducing child abuse and neglect fatalities. We issued our final evaluation report on the initiative last year, and in that report, identified three very important themes that  emerged across this work.

  • Invest in protective factors
  • Address disproportionality and racial bias
  • Meaningfully engage the community and people with lived experience

First, many organizations and jurisdictions began their work with a focus on risk factors among children. However, because these initiatives took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, we gained greater insights into the impact of concrete, economic supports for families during times of crisis. This real-time learning inspired a shift from focusing solely on risk factors to an approach that more heavily identified and addressed protective factors.

Protective factors are conditions or attributes that mitigate or eliminate risk and can increase the health and well-being of children and families. They provide parents with the tools they need to parent effectively even under stress. Major protective factors include knowledge of parenting, knowledge of child development, parental resilience, social connections, and concrete supports.

That shift in focus led to strategies that promote strengthening families and identifying supports that help children stay with their families and prevent them from entering the child welfare system, a finding that is supported by a range of recent research. In fact, April has more recently also been designated as Family Strengthening Month in response to the growing body of knowledge in support of the importance and impact of family strengthening approaches.

Secondly, it has become more evident than ever that child welfare must acknowledge and address the impact of disproportionality and racial bias across child welfare decision-making. This is a system-wide issue and will require systemic changes to address it.

And finally, what has been missing for too long in the conversation about keeping children safe is the voice of the community and those with lived experience. Parents are key to keeping their children safe and resilient. While parents have historically been placed in antagonistic roles in child welfare systems, it is critical that parents are positioned as strong partners and leaders in our efforts.

To achieve this vision, though, we must shift from a child welfare system that responds after harm has occurred to a family strengthening approach that invests in upstream preventive resources that respond to the needs and challenges of families. The challenge we face in achieving this, though, is that the framework of our child welfare system is not set up to respond unless a child has come to the attention of the system because of harm occurring or through a report from a mandatory reporter or hotline call.

Achieving a more preventive system means moving away from the idea that it is solely the function of child protective services (CPS) to keep kids safe. Instead, CPS is one component in a shared, community-wide responsibility for child and family well-being with an emphasis on prevention and a public health approach that addresses the social determinants of health.  

A public health approach to child safety and prevention of fatalities looks for the maximum benefit for the largest number of people, promoting the healthy development and well-being of all children. It works not only at the family level, but also at the community and societal level by bringing the public and private sectors together to align, leverage, and coordinate existing resources to provide support to children and families and to address risks and promote resilience before there is a crisis. Importantly, CPS remains a critical downstream component, but the goal is for fewer families to require CPS involvement.

Because communication is so vital to this shift, an additional resource for child welfare professionals is the Building Better Childhoods website and toolkit. It is based on the framing brief, “Reframing Childhood Adversity: Promoting Upstream Approaches,” developed by the FrameWorks Institute in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse America and Social Current, and provides tools and resources that can help child welfare professionals talk about the shift to a more preventative, family-strengthening system. We know this transition from a CPS-focused child welfare system to a much broader child and family well-being system is not an easy shift to make, but it is one we hope everyone can embrace as we prioritize the tools and resources needed to keep families safe, strong, and together.

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About Amy Templeman

Amy Templeman, a kinship and adoptive parent, is the senior director of child and family well-being at Social Current. In these roles, she works to support families and promote equity. Before joining Social Current, Amy served as executive director of the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, leading the effort to produce a report to the president and Congress. Amy helped to establish the Office of Well Being at the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency, where she conducted strategic planning and oversaw programs to address substance use disorders, domestic violence, education, housing, and child care. She gained research experience while working first at The Urban Institute, contributing to a book and reports on the benefits of kinship care, and later at Johns Hopkins University, managing a community-based, participatory research grant through the CDC resulting in better adolescent mental health.