It comes every April as an annual reminder of the horrors of child abuse and the disappointments of our collective efforts to prevent it from happening.
National Child Abuse Prevention Month was first observed in 1983 by proclamation of President Ronald Reagan, and it has continued every year since. This year, President Joe Biden and the governors of 18 states marked the occasion with official proclamations.
So what do state legislators know and think about how to prevent child maltreatment?
NCSL surveyed 40 legislators from across the nation and both sides of the aisle about their knowledge of strategies to prevent child maltreatment, as well as efforts in their states to shift funding and strategies upstream.
A Focus on Prevention
The results show that legislators generally want to focus on preventing abuse before it occurs and reduce their states’ focus on reactionary systems. They are keenly aware that young children—newborns, infants and toddlers—are the most at risk of child maltreatment. Respondents were familiar with or even knowledgeable about strategies widely considered effective for preventing abuse and neglect. And legislators know behavioral health issues and economic stressors are significant drivers of child maltreatment.
Despite this knowledge, only 18% of respondents said prevention is a “high priority” in their state. And they have only a moderate level of familiarity with the Family First Prevention Services Act—the landmark federal legislation intended to reframe and catalyze prevention-focused reforms in the states.
Tragedy and headlines tend to drive child welfare legislation. The death of a child and stories about abuse and neglect cause public reckonings that often produce swift political reactions but rarely the type of systemic changes necessary to measurably reduce occurrences of abuse and neglect. It’s understandable: Constituents demand accountability from their elected officials, and long-term change requires persistent attention, evaluation of prevention strategies and patience.
The big takeaway from NCSL’s survey is that legislators seem to know where they want to go but don’t quite know how to get there. They see child welfare as a system intended to protect children but also negatively impacted by the unintended consequences of traumatizing families when a removal takes place. They understand prevention is key yet are unsure how to weave it into existing systems, which are focused on child protection and late-stage interventions. The solutions are complex, and legislators need additional resources, data, information and supports.
Continuum of Supports
Researchers and public health professionals often talk about prevention as a continuum of layered supports that can start prenatally and reach into young adulthood. The prevention continuum includes primary, secondary and tertiary strategies, with primary being the furthest “upstream” and tertiary being “downstream,” or late-stage interventions.
Primary prevention strategies address the general population and provide broad supports and information to the public. These policies and programs can include public service announcements, help lines, child and maternal screenings for health or developmental concerns, and mental health resources.
For example, Colorado recently enacted SB22-037 to fund programs that prevent and reduce the occurrence of child abuse and neglect and youth crime and violence. The bill also funds programs that prevent student dropouts and youth alcohol and drug use.
The prevention continuum includes primary, secondary and tertiary strategies, with primary being the furthest ‘upstream’ and tertiary being ‘downstream,’ or late-stage interventions.
Secondary child abuse prevention strategies target populations that have existing risk factors for child abuse, including poverty, parental substance abuse, young parental age, parental mental health concerns and parental or child disabilities. These policies and programs can include family supports like home visitation, financial supports, housing and high-quality child care.
In April, Florida created the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative through HB 7065. This program provides fathers with parenting resources and targets services to fathers in communities with lower incomes and higher rates of incarceration, housing instability and unemployment.
Family resource centers also fall into the secondary prevention category. Many states, including Alabama, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Washington, recently appropriated funds for these centers. Community-based family resource centers provide a range of services that promote wellness and strengthen parents’ ability to build relationships with their children and other families in their neighborhoods. The work of family resource centers contributes to the protective factors parents and children need to be safe and healthy.
Tertiary prevention policies are designed to reduce the negative effects of child maltreatment and prevent its recurrence in families. Common tertiary policies include specialized home visiting, parent mentoring, support groups and intensive mental health services. The intent of these policies is to prevent removal, support reunification and equip families with evidence-based parenting tools and strategies.
Child Abuse Prevention Month is an example of primary prevention; it raises awareness about a social problem and reminds us that abuse and neglect are preventable. And maybe it will leave us asking, “Why is this still happening?” and “How do we stop it from happening?”
Wade Fickler is director of NCSL’s Children and Families Program; Maddie Davis is an intern with the program.
- Webinar: Optimizing Child Welfare Funding Through Legislative Action, NCSL, May 2021
- Disproportionality and Race Equity in Child Welfare, NCSL, Jan. 2021
- Child Welfare Landing Page, NCSL
- Child Welfare Enacted Legislation Database, NCSL
- Family First Prevention Services Act, NCSL, April 2022
- Adverse Childhood Experiences Page, NCSL
- Injury Prevention Legislation Database, NCSL