Essentials for childhood: Where prevention of child abuse is an essential element

Daryl Higgins, Australia, 2018

A positively-oriented approach to child wellbeing proposes that the prevention of child abuse and neglect is key. In order to be effective in preventing child abuse and neglect, efforts must be multi-faceted, targeting not only individual children and families, but recognising the need for a focus on community-level change.

 

At this year’s AIFS 2018 Conference What matters most to families in the 21st century, I presented as part of a symposium on re-thinking how we value children in Australia. The topic I addressed was ‘How child abuse prevention can be achieved through a positively-oriented approach to child wellbeing’, such as with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Essentials for Childhood Framework (CDC Framework).

The key premise is that safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments are essential to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to ensure all children reach their full potential.

Achieving this requires identifying the risk factors to be addressed, as well as protective or enabling factors to be supported. Interestingly, many risk and protective factors for child maltreatment are similar to those for poor child wellbeing – such as poverty, parental substance misuse or mental illness affecting parenting skill and capacity to create a safe, loving family environment. The key target of messages is the community as a whole – to be committed to positive development of children and families.

The framework is currently being implemented through trials in five US states, drawing on a collective impact approach.

Goals for meeting the ‘essentials’ for childhood

According to the CDC Framework, there are four main goals to getting the ‘essentials’ for childhood in place:

Goal 1: Raise awareness and commitment to promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments and prevent child maltreatment.

To do this at the community level:

  • adopt the vision of ‘assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments’
  • raise awareness in support of the vision to protect children from child maltreatment
  • partner with others to unite behind the vision.

Goal 2: Use data to inform actions.

The steps to assist you are:

  • build partnerships to gather and synthesise relevant data
  • take stock of existing data; identify and fill critical data gaps
  • use the data to support other action steps.

Goal 3: Create the context for healthy children and families through norms change and programs.

To provide safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments you can:

  • promote the community norm that we all share responsibility for the wellbeing of children
  • promote positive community norms about parenting programs and acceptable parenting behaviours
  • implement evidence-based programs for parents and caregivers.

Goal 4: Create the context for healthy children and families through policies.

The two steps to inform policies are:

  • Identify and assess which policies may positively impact the lives of children and families in your community.
  • Provide decision-makers and community leaders with information on the benefits of evidence-based strategies and rigorous evaluation.

Source: CDC Framework.

The Australian context

There is good alignment between the CDC Essentials for Childhood framework and the approach being taken in Australia to preventing child abuse and neglect. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 already has the ‘bones’ on which such a positive wellbeing-oriented framework could be built.

This Australian framework:

  • acknowledges the need for prevention (not just early intervention and statutory services)
  • mentions explicitly the need for efforts to be based on a public health approach
  • frames child maltreatment as a preventable public health problem.

However, rather than working with and equipping universal services, many of the actions in the National Framework – particularly in the first two triennial action plans – have been focused on the work of statutory services, such as standards for out-of-home care and better supports for transitioning from out-of-home care (under the first action plan). They have also been focused on strengthening secondary service provision for those at high risk, such as family support services, especially for expectant, new and vulnerable parents where alcohol and other drug, mental health, and domestic and family violence issues combine (under the third action plan).

Challenges for the public health approach

Although the goal of a public health approach is articulated in Australia’s national framework, the methods for achieving and embedding this approach in each of the action plans and supporting strategies are lacking. And this is where a framework like the CDC’s can play a part.

Some of the other challenges include the need for:

  • longer-term funding, based on best-practice from implementation science
  • outcome-focused, performance-based funding that reports on individual family outcomes
  • funding for rigorous evaluations
  • cross-portfolio commitment to population-based implementation, based on universal service delivery platforms (like GPs, pre-natal/post-natal and other health services, early childhood services, and of course education) – see Sanders, Higgins, and Prinz (2018)
  • funding for advocacy and widespread delivery of communications campaigns.

A final challenge is that although prevention of maltreatment in all of its forms can be influenced by a positively-oriented strategy such as the CDC Framework, it is important that there are embedded within it, or sitting alongside it, specific strategies to address the unique risk factors for child sexual abuse in families, organisations and communities.

This must involve addressing factors that facilitate grooming and situational opportunities, and removing those obstacles that make it hard for victims – or those children/young people and other adults who are aware of concerning behaviour of an adult or other young person – to speak up, be believed, and have their concerns acted on appropriately.

For more information about safeguarding strategies specific to child sexual abuse prevention, see the Safeguarding children and young people portal.

Further reading:

Higgins, D. J. (2015). A public health approach to enhancing safe and supportive family environments for children. Family Matters, 96, 39–52. Available: https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-96/public-health-approach-enhancing-safe-and-supportive-family-environments-children

Higgins, D. J., Kaufman, K., & Erooga, M. (2016). How can child welfare and youth-serving organisations keep children safe? developing practice: the child youth and family work journal, 44, 48–64.

Higgins, D. & Morley, S. (2018). Understanding situational crime prevention for child sexual abuse: What services need to know. ACU Safeguarding Children and Young People Portal [online]. Available at: https://safeguardingchildren.acu.edu.au/practice_tools/situational_crime_prevention

Mullan, K., & Higgins, D. (2014). A safe and supportive family environment for children: Key components and links to child outcomes. Department of Social Services. Occasional Paper. Canberra: DSS. Available at: www.dss.gov.au/about-the-department/publications-articles/research-publications/occasional-paper-series

Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62–70. Available at: https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-100/population-approach-prevention-child-maltreatment.