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Mother reading to child.

April is child abuse prevention month. Most families will do almost anything to provide a safe and nurturing world for their children. Sometimes, however, circumstances get in the way and due to family stress or individual problems for the parents or caregivers, children end up experiencing abuse or neglect. This begins a tragedy both for the children, and or the entire family.

From our years of working in the field, we know that child abuse can be prevented. Decades of research has shown that children who have been abused or neglected are more vulnerable for later problems with health and well-being. Beginning with our knowledge of the love that parents and caregivers have for their children, and including the latest research on HOPE – Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences, we want to share our thoughts:

  1. Provide direct supports to families. Financial stress on families increases the risk of child abuse and neglect. During the pandemic, our nation showed that we can lift millions of children out of poverty. Policies like family medical leave, increased SNAP benefits that provide food, child tax credits, and earned income tax credits put more money in the hands of families with children. These direct supports decrease the stress on families.
  2. Expand paid family and medical leave. Early relational health forms the foundation of lifelong well-being. Paid family and medical leave, which we have in Massachusetts, supports the creation of these lifelong bonds, and prevents the most serious forms of child abuse in infants.
  3. Transition to a mandated support system. Many of the families that are reported to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) are struggling with finances, child care, mental illness, substance use, and many other challenges that can be addressed without removing children from their families. Child welfare systems are experimenting with “mandated support” instead of mandated reporting.
  4. Increase access to home visitors. Bringing a baby home can be frightening and bewildering for every family! Programs like Healthy Families Massachusetts provide home visitors, who use evidence-based programs to support families, during the first two years of life. These programs reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect.
  5. Address systemic racism. Racial bias undermines the ability of parents to care for their children.  HOPE offers a framework for addressing issues of bias within organizational policies, and steps to reduce implicit bias. Without focused attention on anti-racism and anti-bias, programs that aim to support families and reduce child abuse and neglect simply do not work very well.
  6. Reduce lifelong substance use disorder. Substance use disorder plagues families in Massachusetts, it is one of the leading reasons why children enter foster care here. Research in Montana and Tennessee show that positive childhood experiences prevent the development of later substance use disorder.
  7. Don’t forget fathers and other parents! When maternal and child health programs include the infant’s father or other caregivers in family outreach, everyone benefits. This realization runs far and wide, from home visiting to paid family leave, from Massachusetts to Washington State.
  8. Celebrate strengths. Finding faults, challenges and problems seems like second nature in the helping professions. Finding out about the positive relationships, environments, social engagements, and emotional supports for children and their families transforms these relationships, and allows for collaborative problem-solving.
  9. Improve access to high-quality early education. Regardless of family circumstances, children can form new friendships, have safe spaces to learn and play, engage with others, and learn to respect others and master their own emotions – all before kindergarten. Children in high-quality early education enter schools ready to learn and have lifelong benefits.
  10. Invest in parks and playgrounds. Here children make friends, they laugh and play with their parents and caregivers, and community’s form.

Overall, child abuse prevention month is a time of optimism. We have seen child abuse rates decline over the past decades and during the initial stages of the pandemic. Increased mental health problems and readjustments to new work-life dynamics mean that it is time to redouble our efforts on policies that prevent child abuse and neglect. Childhood lasts a lifetime, and we can make Massachusetts a wonderful place for children and families.

To learn more about how you can help prevent child abuse the Department of Health and Human Services released their 2023/2024 Prevention Resource Guide. There is information about the HOPE framework on pages 36 to 39.

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