As we navigate the effects of a global pandemic and economic recession, we have the opportunity to rethink the ways we provide services and supports to children and families before they find themselves in crisis. Essential to this new thinking is the realignment of our systems to make them more prevention-oriented, integrated, science-informed, and equitable, and thereby better meeting the needs of children and families, not just during this pandemic, but into the future.
Creating a reimagined Prevention Services System in the United States will require a whole new approach not only to the services we deliver, but also the ways in which we deliver them.
Currently, we allocate few resources or time to the prevention of child abuse and neglect and instead wait until families are in crisis and something serious happens before we intervene. In states, there is a lack of adequate funding and little coordination to ensure all families have the support they need before abuse or neglect occurs.
This causes considerable financial strain on society. Children who are abused and neglected often require specialized treatment, and the costs associated with that add up in our child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Those children may also experience other challenges that affect their economic circumstances and productivity in the workplace. Addressing the physical, emotional and economic consequences over the lifespan is estimated to cost about $830,928 per victim of abuse and neglect, according to recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the same time, many family needs could be addressed outside of the child welfare system through early intervention and support programs like home visitation or through family resource centers. These programs and services are akin to how a primary care physician can help divert costly, downstream medical emergencies through timely, low-cost preventive interventions.
A robust, comprehensive prevention system would not just prevent tragedies before they occur, but it would also offer upfront, cost-effective strategies that could strengthen all families and reduce the need to remove children from their families in the first place. There is a strong economic argument to be made for this approach. According to data from Casey Family Programs, the cost savings associated with prevention services far outweigh the cost of delivering the interventions.
We envision this new system being led by a dedicated agency or department that is adequately funded to ensure the coordination of prevention resources so that all families, regardless of where they reside, can access services to keep their children safe, healthy and well. This prevention system would provide equal attention to the prevention of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the promotion of positive childhood experiences.
This focus on prevention will need to be supported with a robust policy agenda, including policies that address the economic strain that affects all too many families. Policies that currently exist, such as paid family leave and refundable earned-income tax credits, relieve financial stressors and have proven to prevent child abuse and neglect.
However, federal policies don’t always align with research and science. For example, the Family First Prevention Services Act requires states to provide evidence-based prevention services to families that include substance abuse and mental health, but glaringly leaves out economic support for families, which we know is critical in keeping families strong. Additionally, federal funds should be prioritized and adequately support prevention services across the country through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which to date has been woefully underfunded.
This prevention system must be constructed with the recognition that there are systemic injustices in our society that limit opportunity and access for some children and families. Many of our systems were built and designed to perpetuate this injustice, and as a result, there is disproportionate representation of people of color and LGBTQ youth in our current child welfare system.
Many families do not trust the systems that have been put in place to “help,” because they often experience discrimination when they attempt to access those services. A new, comprehensive prevention system would fundamentally work to alter the conditions and contexts in which children and families live in order to produce equitable outcomes for all.
It’s likely we will always have the need for a child protection system or for strategies focused on identifying families who might be “at-risk” for abuse or neglect. But, by creating a comprehensive, voluntary system of prevention services and supports for all families, we can create stronger families, build vibrant and equitable communities, and significantly reduce the need for costly interventions after children have been harmed.
There is no more urgent time than now to invest in the development of a comprehensive prevention services system in this country to support children and their families, so they are safe, healthy and thriving.
Jennifer Jones is director of the Change in Mind Institute at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Bart Klika is chief research and strategy officer at Prevent Child Abuse America.