National Child Abuse Prevention Month is a time to acknowledge the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect and to promote the social and emotional well-being of children and families. During the month of April and throughout the year, communities are encouraged to increase awareness and provide education and support to families through resources and strategies to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Although prevention has always been at the heart of the national campaign, it wasn’t until the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) was enacted in 2018 that prevention services had a chance to make an impact on keeping families together. FFPSA is the most significant child welfare legislation in over 20 years. This Act emphasizes the importance of prevention by dramatically altering the federal financing structure for child welfare programming but even more importantly it provides the opportunity for states to reorient their child welfare systems around prevention and right size congregate care. The primary goals of FFPSA are to prevent children from entering foster care and provide better care for children who are already in out of home care. Until now, more federal funding could support children IN foster care rather than support children in remaining safely with their own families. It will take time to shift the numbers but if we all work in partnership – the Department for Community Based Services and social service providers across the state – we can achieve the goal of keeping families safely together while also improving the quality of services to children in out of home care.
We know this is not an easy task, especially for Kentucky. We have a significant number of children coming into foster care due to substance use/abuse by one or both parents, therefore, it will be important for the provider community to meet the need across the state. This need is not only to increase the number of programs to address substance use/abuse but also to provide intensive in-home family preservation type services where multiple needs are addressed such as housing, employment, child care, financial stability, behavioral health, and parenting skills.
In my many years as a child welfare professional, what I still believe is that families are where children thrive – safe, loving, stable families. This should never be at the cost of the child’s safety. Risk will always have to be assessed. However, with more in-home supports, safety may be more predictable as we increase the number of protective factors, not only in the family but in the community. Protective factors are identifiable skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies in individuals, families, or communities that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and mitigate or eliminate risk in families and communities. Research has been clear that family preservation-type services have an over 95% success rate of keeping the family safely together. This is certainly worth working towards. Alternatively, we know we have more than 20,000 youth – across the country each year – aging out of foster care with no legal family.
All these efforts are coming at the right time. Now, more than ever, families need community supports. Our current health crisis certainly puts a tremendous strain on any family. Current support systems such as education, health and behavioral health are now severely limited in their in-person contact. This in person contact oftentimes is a lifeline for the child and the parent. Fortunately, there are many online resources (www.preventchildabuse.org) being created to provide parents with helpful information and even behavioral health support via telehealth to get through this very stressful time. Since many families have access to technology, there are ways to continue prevention and support families through this time.
Not only in April but as we endure this pandemic, reach out to a family – by phone, text, email – who may be struggling due to unemployment or balancing employment with childcare responsibilities or financial worries. Your words of encouragement may be the lifeline they needed.
Jennifer Hall, MSW