How to Prevent Child Abuse

The impact of maltreatment on children and society is staggering and disheartening. Maltreatment can have devastating immediate and long–term physical, psychological, and behavioral effects on children and can result in death.

A single incident affects the victim not only today, but quite often tomorrow and beyond as well. That incident also reverberates through families and across institutions &ndash including medical and mental health resources, law enforcement and judicial systems, public social services, and nonprofit helping agencies – as they respond to the incident and support the victim in the aftermath.

A Framework for Prevention

Professionals working to prevent child abuse and neglect have “borrowed” a framework for prevention from other disciplines, including public health, education and mental health. This framework consists of three levels: primary prevention, secondary prevention and tertiary prevention. These prevention strategies are increasingly recognized as a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories.

Primary prevention activities are directed toward the general population (universal). These activities seek to raise the awareness of the general public, service providers, and decision–makers, about the scope and problems associated with child maltreatment. Universal approaches to primary prevention might include:

  • Public service announcements that encourage positive parenting; Parent education programs and support groups that focus on child development and age–appropriate expectations and the roles and responsibilities of parenting;
  • Family support and family strengthening programs that enhance the ability of families to access existing services, resources and support interactions among family members;
  • Public awareness campaigns that provide information on how and where to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

Secondary prevention activities are directed toward populations that may have one or more risk factors associated with child maltreatment, such as poverty, parental substance abuse, young parental age, parental mental health concerns, and parental or child disabilities. Programs may direct services to communities or neighborhoods that have a high incidence of any or all of these risk factors. Approaches to prevention programs that focus on high–risk populations might include:

  • Parent education programs located, for example, in high schools that focus on teen parents, or within substance abuse treatment programs for mothers and families with young children;
  • Parent support groups that help parents deal with their everyday stresses and meet the challenges and responsibilities of parenting;
  • Home visiting programs that provide support and assistance to expecting and new mothers in their homes;
  • Respite care for families that have children with special needs;
  • Family resource centers that offer information and referral services to families living in low-income neighborhoods.

Tertiary prevention activities focus on families where maltreatment has already occurred (indicated) and seek to reduce the negative consequences of the maltreatment and to prevent its recurrence. These prevention programs may include services such as:

  • Intensive family preservation services with trained mental health counselors that are available to families 24 hours per day for a short period of time (e.g., 6–8 weeks);
  • Parent mentor programs with stable, non–abusive families acting as “role models” and providing support to families in crisis;
  • Parent support groups that help parents transform negative practices and beliefs into positive parenting behaviors and attitudes;
  • Mental health services for children and families affected by maltreatment to improve family communication and functioning.

Source: Emerging Practices In the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services