Keeping Children Safe: Commissioner Bryan Samuels on Child Abuse Prevention Month

Apr 30, 2013, 5:33 PM

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting public health. In this Idea Gallery, Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, provides his perspective on how communities and organizations and families can work together to keep children safe, in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Nancy Barrand, Senior Adviser for Program Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), also weighed in to provide some context for Commissioner Samuels' post:

Few events are more traumatic for children than being removed from their families and entered into the foster care system. In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the Corporation for Supportive Housing to develop and implement a pilot program in New York City that uses supportive housing to offer stability to families with children who are at risk of recurring involvement in the child welfare system. The New York pilot initiative, called Keeping Families Together (KFT), showed positive results in keeping and reuniting children with their families in a safe, stable environment. A 2011 evaluation indicates that the KFT pilot generated a 91 percent housing retention rate among participating families. By the end of the evaluation, 61 percent of the child welfare cases open at the time of placement in supportive housing had been closed, and there were fewer repeat incidents of child maltreatment.

Now, RWJF has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children Youth and Families and three private foundations – the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – to jointly fund a $35.5 million initiative to further test how supportive housing can help stabilize highly vulnerable families. The national replication effort will be evaluated and we’re anxious to see whether, again, secure and affordable housing, when paired with the right services for struggling families, can reduce instances of child abuse and neglect.  The long-term gains in health and well-being, and costs saved, could be tremendous.
file Bryan Samuels, Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families

Commissioner Bryan Samuels on Child Abuse Prevention

Throughout the month of April, we turn our attention to the prevention of child abuse and neglect, celebrating those efforts in neighborhoods, faith communities, and schools that keep children safe and help families thrive. Whether formal or informal, these efforts involve wrapping caregivers and children in supports that reduce risk factors for maltreatment and promote protective factors, by decreasing stress, boosting parenting skills, and helping parents manage substance abuse or mental health issues.

Last year, more than 675,000 U.S. children were victims of maltreatment. These children are more likely than their peers to have emotional and behavioral problems, struggles in school, and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. The effects of abuse and neglect can be pernicious and lifelong.

In recent years, we’ve come a long way in learning what it takes to help children who have experienced abuse and neglect heal and recover. We have interventions that help put families back together after maltreatment has occurred. But preventing abuse and neglect in the first place by giving families the support they need, when they need it, yields the best outcomes.

An innovative public-private partnership, administered through the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is attempting to do just that, targeting those families most at risk of abuse and neglect due to housing instability. In these families, homelessness is rarely the only risk factor for maltreatment. Caregivers may be struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues, and children may be reacting to traumatic events they have witnessed or experienced. This constellation of stressors increases the likelihood that child abuse or neglect will occur.

With $25 million over five years, five grantees are testing the effectiveness of integrating comprehensive services focused on safety, positive family functioning, and child well-being with stable housing. An additional $10.5 million in support for the project grantees comes from four private foundations: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Each of these foundations brings a unique and important set of expertise and resources—ranging from being well versed in issues related to supportive housing to an in-depth knowledge of the child welfare system to a fundamental understanding of implementation of evidence based programs—that will be critical to the success of this initiative.

Each grantee—Kids in Distress (Wilton Manors, Fla.), Community Alliance for the Homeless (Memphis, Tenn.), Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), the San Francisco Human Services Agency, and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families—will develop triage procedures to identify families who come to the attention of the child welfare system due to severe housing issues and high service needs. Then, they will provide supportive housing services, customized case management for children and their parents, and trauma-informed and evidence-based interventions and mental health services.

This array of supports will build family strengths, provide housing stability, ameliorate children’s behavioral health symptoms, and reduce other risk factors. It will require the collaboration of multiple public systems, including housing, child welfare, and mental health, as well as other community supports. Taken together, if these programs are successful, they will help us learn effective strategies to prevent abuse, neglect, and removal of children from their families.

Keeping Families Together, an initiative of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, has emerging evidence that this can work. The project, which provides supportive housing and comprehensive support services for families at risk of recurrent child welfare involvement, has shown positive preliminary results for families. After moving to supportive housing, most families had no new abuse or neglect cases.

To prevent child maltreatment, innovative strategies like this are urgently needed. Working across systems to provide comprehensive, trauma-informed services that address the complex needs of families at risk of abuse and neglect—this is what it will take to prevent child maltreatment and improve outcomes for our nation’s most vulnerable children.

As Child Abuse Prevention Month comes to a close, these demonstrations remind us that families need support year-round. We can all draw inspiration from their example and do our part in our systems, our neighborhoods, and our own families to build a network of support for those at risk of abuse or neglect.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.