Child welfare systems have traditionally focused on responding to allegations and incidents of child abuse and neglect, stepping in once warning signs or problems are already visible. What would it look like to have a system dedicated to engaging with parents and shoring up families all along the way so that problems are prevented before they occur?

This is the idea behind new federal policies, including the Family First Prevention Services Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and a national demonstration initiative funded by the Department of Justice called Child Safety Forward. What these all share is an effort to devote more resources to front end, upstream services that support families before abuse or neglect occurs and to remodel child welfare systems into “child and family wellbeing” systems that extend beyond child protection to all systems that help bolster child and family wellbeing.

These shifts are long overdue. Children’s early experiences get built into the brain’s architecture, so ensuring healthy, nurturing environments for infants and toddlers leads to healthy, thriving children and adolescents who are equipped to learn and fulfill their potential.

A stronger emphasis on promoting family wellbeing is also an important part of addressing racial injustices in the child welfare system – like the troubling fact that a disproportionate number of children who are removed from their families and placed in foster care are children of color. In fact, a February 2021 report from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families noted “African American and Hispanic/Latinx children are more likely to be substantiated for maltreatment, removed from their homes, and remain in care longer than White children.”

We all have a stake and a role in addressing this issue. We also have a responsibility to speak up in support of policies that put good jobs, safe neighborhoods, consistent health care, and great schools within reach for every family. Policies like the Child Tax Credit, which experts have noted has the potential to cut childhood poverty by half, and the recent research from Chapin Hall that shows that providing families with concrete supports like food, cash, and housing both strengthens communities and families.

Addressing disproportionality in the child welfare system is one of the key goals of the Child Safety Forward initiative. Funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Child Safety Forward is a demonstration initiative to develop multidisciplinary strategies and a public health response to address fatalities or near-death injuries as a result of child abuse and neglect. The initiative takes place across five sites, and the Saint Francis site is primarily focused across the Hartford, Connecticut region.

In Hartford, the team faced socioeconomic conditions across the region, including poverty, racially segregated communities, and inadequacies in data collection and reporting that have led to limited opportunities for a proactive, preventative approach to addressing child safety. Central to this effort is the data-driven collaborative approach that engages parents alongside grassroots neighborhood organizations, caregivers, health professionals, researchers, foundations, state agencies, and others, with a goal of better equipping those with lived experience in the tools and resources they need to help their communities and families thrive.

Armed with data showing a higher-than-average number of unsafe sleep deaths among African American infants, the Hartford Child Safety Forward site was able to work with parents to develop and disseminate culturally appropriate safe sleep messages for their communities.

Parents are full members of the Hartford site’s stakeholder group, working in partnership with Child Protective Services (CPS) officials, pediatricians, community-based organizations, and other service providers. Community organizing and leadership development are among the methods used to build parent confidence and skills to assert the value of their lived experiences. The project helps prepare them to not only “speak truth to power” but to see themselves as powerful. One outcome of this process is that parents created a list of topics on which they want to be educated so that they can create a comprehensive, pro-active “Child Safety” curriculum that will be accessible to parents before CPS or law enforcement reports result in being mandated to classes.

By engaging parents as part of the solution and providing them with the tools and resources they need to improve their lives and their families’ lives, we can continue to support a shift from child welfare systems to child wellbeing systems that better serve all families. Child protection systems are important but represent only one aspect of a larger network of systems that can promote child and family wellbeing and unlock children’s full potential.


A version of this op-ed previously appeared in The Hartford Courant on February 24, 2022.

Disclaimer: This product 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 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.