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Why Do We Spend More on Addressing the Effects of Childhood Neglect Than Preventing It?

March 30, 2018

family holding baby“When we choose, as a child welfare system, to intervene only after abuse or neglect has occurred, we are complicit in perpetuating the inter-generational cycle of trauma and maltreatment.”

That’s Jerry Milner, the Associate Commissioner of the Administration for Child and Families Children’s Bureau, and he’s right. New evidence from Abt Global highlights two particularly promising approaches to building parental capacity to provide a strong family foundation before neglect occurs: parenting education and career pathway education models.

The Link between Neglect and Poverty

Parents often are the first and most important influence in their children’s lives, responsible for providing the safe and stable home that, when present, forms a rock-solid foundation for a growing life. When that foundation is damaged, shaky, or cracked, family stability and child safety can be threatened. Parental neglect is strongly associated with poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage, and neglect is the most common reason children are removed from their home by the child welfare system.

The scale of the problem cannot be overstated. In 2016, an estimated 500,000 children were victims of neglect. Prevention of neglect before it occurs, therefore, can lead to significant reductions in the numbers of children entering foster care in the first place. Up until recently, child welfare funds were not permitted for use to strengthen family foundations or capacity in this way. The Family First Act now provides a narrow but important avenue for child welfare systems to serve families at immediate risk of family disruption due to abuse or neglect and to prevent deeper system involvement.

Even so, the vast majority of child welfare funds are still earmarked for services after home removal. We could shore up foundations for far more families by bringing several evidence-based programs to scale. Such programs could address common challenges to parental capacity, including poverty, financial stress, parenting stress, and lack of knowledge of child development and parenting/discipline strategies.

Improving Parenting Skills and Career Opportunities

Parenting education helps caregivers better understand child development – for example, bedwetting accidents, while frustrating, are very common through middle childhood – and learn effective, safe strategies for discipline and behavior management, such as natural consequences.  Many parenting education programs are delivered in group-based settings, so parents can also build friendships, social capital, and bond with people facing similar parenting dilemmas. Abt has generated evidence on the effectiveness of parenting education programs for caregivers of young children and adolescents, including the importance of frequent home visits that allow parents to practice parenting skills.

Career pathways describe a collection of related certificates, certifications, and degrees within a single specialization that provides opportunities to work while gaining additional skills and knowledge. For example, a career pathway in nursing begins with a home health aide certificate, moving to a certified medical assistant, a licensed practical nurse, and a registered nurse. Low-income adults often are not able to financially manage the completion of a four-year degree, but through career pathways, parents can secure a relatively low-cost, short-term certificate that translates to a skilled job. Parents are then able to work, support a family, and gain additional education and promotions over time.

Abt has led efforts to better understand how to structure career pathways training and supports to ensure low-income parents are able to secure the financial resources necessary to provide children with sufficient medical care, housing and other basic needs.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Abt recognizes how valuable those ounces are to preventing children from experiencing neglect, and is working hard to build the evidence around parenting education and career pathways in order to address neglect’s root causes.

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