One could be forgiven for feeling as though tragic stories of child abuse roll through Tampa Bay news cycles as predictably as our daily summer rains. In fact, they are even more common than they may appear: in Hillsborough County, an average of 115 children have entered out-of-home care every month for the past year, leading the state in child removals. Once children are deemed unsafe in their family homes and thus removed, they begin a difficult journey through a complex foster care system which, despite its noble efforts, is simply too trauma-laden and too under-resourced to lead most of them to the bright futures every child deserves. When crisis strikes, we rightly do our best to rise to the occasion – but what are we doing to keep these crises from happening in the first place?
Today marks the final day of Child Abuse Prevention Month, but Champions for Children is proud to carry the torch for this critical mission 365 days a year. As Executive Director of one of only a few agencies anywhere that is exclusively devoted to the prevention of child abuse and neglect – when I tell people what we do, I am usually met with two reactions: first, an expression of solidarity with our mission; and second, a quizzical inquiry about how one goes about preventing something like child abuse. It’s a fair question for many reasons. Parents don’t exactly go out of their way to announce their risk factors, nor can we in our right minds expect to be well received if we tell people we think they are a good fit for our child abuse prevention programs. There is a lot we can do, though, and this month gives us a chance to learn about what that is.
Good science shows us there are certain factors that heighten the risk of abuse and neglect and other factors that lower it. Florida’s Department of Children and Families provides detailed breakdowns of children entering out-of-home care including their ages and the reasons for their removal. The presence of substance abuse, domestic violence, and parents’ inability to cope with stress crowd out the field of twenty possible justifications, and nearly a quarter of those removed are younger than twelve months. Right away, this tells us we can get the highest return on our investment by focusing on families with the youngest children who demonstrate one or more of these risk factors.
Research from the Center for the Study of Social Policy complements the data we have about known risk factors with what it calls known “protective factors” – five core strengths that can be proactively cultivated in families to reduce their risk of child abuse. These include things like opportunities to connect with other parents, knowing where to find help, and effective stress-coping techniques. It is no coincidence that the absence of these core strengths also predicts the very risk factors that predict abuse and neglect.
When we approach the challenge of child abuse prevention from this view, it becomes a lot less nebulous and much clearer what we can and must do as a community. We can facilitate strong social support networks for parents by providing group-based family education; we can help parents with their child-rearing challenges by supporting early childhood home visitation and effective public education campaigns; and we can reduce common stressors by committing to family-friendly work policies and strengthening our community responses to basic needs. Here in Tampa Bay, we are fortunate to have the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which centralize the funding and execution of these efforts by nonprofit partners. Perhaps the easiest thing we can do is to let our representatives know we value and are committed to these special taxing districts.
At a person-to-person level, there is yet more that every one of us can do: we can offer support to families under stress, stay abreast of the resources available for both basic needs provision and family strengthening supports, and report legitimate concerns when we have them. Just as importantly, we can remember that abuse and neglect know no demographic boundaries. Harmful stigmas about parenting failures prevent even outwardly idyllic families from seeking help with their all-too-common challenges.
Although Child Abuse Prevention Month is drawing to a close, I encourage readers to take one small final action that can reverberate throughout the year: Google “child abuse prevention Tampa Bay,” spend ten minutes perusing whatever comes up, and then share the most interesting thing you’ve learned with someone you know. By demystifying prevention, we can begin to make it the gold standard for how we attack our community’s epidemic of child abuse and neglect.