The Reframing Childhood Adversity Toolkit is intended to support organizations in their interaction with media, the general public, and other stakeholders when speaking about childhood adversity. It is based on the February 2021 framing brief titled “Reframing Childhood Adversity: Promoting Upstream Approaches” developed by the FrameWorks Institute, in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse America and Social Current (formerly the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities-Council on Accreditation).
What exactly is “reframing?” According to the FrameWorks Institute, it involves changing the public conversation about an issue to be more accurate, more hopeful, and more solution-oriented. Social science research shows that people rely on mental shortcuts to make sense of social problems. If we communicate in ways that cue unproductive ways of thinking, people can dismiss ideas or jump to unhelpful responses. By studying how communication activates different shortcuts and affects our thinking, the FrameWorks Institute uncovers people’s deeply held worldviews and widely held assumptions to activate more productive ways of thinking about social issues.
Three key communications challenges that this toolkit aims to address are:
Child abuse and neglect prevention are important to address but do not represent the whole story. Childhood adversity provides a larger framework for understanding risk factors for children and how to prevent harm before it occurs.
Too often, media covers childhood adversity through a crime lens, highlighting cases of horrific abuse in a sensationalistic way without offering solutions. We need to find ways to communicate with the media about the impact of their reporting style with a goal of encouraging more nuanced and solutions-focused reporting that supports a shift to prevention.
Research on adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, is essential to understanding brain architecture and explaining adversity but often leaves out other factors such as poverty and implicit bias. It also can lead to fatalistic thinking and a tendency toward thinking we must “fix the parents.” We need to broaden perspectives to address the range of child adversity experiences and solutions.
Reframing Childhood Adversity: Promoting Upstream Approaches
- At a high level, child adversity must be framed as a public issue, a preventable problem, and a solvable problem.
- To position child adversity as a public issue:
- Make the story one where we all have a stake and a role in outcomes that matter.
- Show how external conditions “get under the skin” to shape health, development, and outcomes.
- To help people see where prevention efforts would make a difference:
- Emphasize the dynamism of development.
- Talk about preventing an overload of stress on families.
- To make it clear that solutions exist and are worth pursuing:
- Don’t talk about the impact of adversity without also explaining people’s capacity for resilience.
- Always include a proven or promising policy-level solution.
In its landmark 2016 report, the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) emphasized that fatalities are preventable and identified three fundamental components to improving our child welfare systems based on a public health approach: 1) leadership and accountability; 2) decisions grounded in better data and research; and 3) multidisciplinary support for families.
The Commission was established by the Protect Our Kids Act of 2012 and charged by the President and Congress with developing a comprehensive national strategy to eliminate child fatalities resulting from abuse and neglect. On the heels of two years of public hearings, CECANF issued a report, “ Within Our Reach,” in March 2016 that included a range of recommendations that reflect a public health approach to child safety and a reimagined child welfare system. This concept integrates a broad spectrum of partners and systems to identify, test, and evaluate strategies to provide upstream, preventative, and earlier intervention supports and services that can strengthen the building blocks of healthy families. It represents a system that is focused less on a child protection response to abuse and neglect and more on building the well-being of all children.
In response to the Commission’s findings, a national group of child welfare and public health leaders, foundations, policy makers, and other members of the child welfare ecosystem came together in 2019 to strategize on the best ways to support creation of a shift from child welfare systems to 21st century child and family well-being systems. One of the key strategies identified was the importance of changing the narrative around child welfare to build public will and support for the major systems change that will need to take place. This new narrative is particularly critical in the wake of the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), and the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA), which provide the policy mechanisms needed to bring about this new vision.
Research on the media approach to child welfare highlights the need for a new child welfare frame that can help change the media narrative around childhood adversity. For example, in a study conducted by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and funded by the Children’s Bureau, researchers conducted a Nexis database search for news and opinion articles published in the top 50 circulating US newspapers and The Associated Press between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017.
Their review of articles found that a majority of reporters cover the child welfare system through a crime lens. According to the study:
News about the child welfare system was driven by tragic stories of individual cases of harm and death, painting a picture of a system that is failing, inadequate, or, at best, overwhelmed. When solutions to issues in the child welfare system were discussed, the focus was on punitive, after-the-fact measures in response to high-profile incidents. That’s important because how the news depicts problems can shape how audiences understand solutions and why they matter. If preventive or community-based solutions are missing from the coverage, it could make it harder for policymakers and the public to imagine tangible change in how the system serves the country’s most vulnerable families.
While we know that the media’s editorial choices are driven by very specific factors: breaking news, stories reflecting key trends, and compelling, often sensationalistic, human interest stories, framing science provides a baseline to help those in the child welfare system effectively pitch media more nuanced and balanced stories about the foundations families need to thrive. Our hope is to engage our partners and communities in telling their stories through a framing lens, engaging media in deep and nuanced reporting about children, families, and communities, and supporting a new national narrative for child and family strengthening policies.
In 2004, Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America) with financial support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation commissioned the first framing study on child abuse and neglect, in part in response to the longstanding practice of using emotionally evocative stories of abuse and neglect. Recognizing that this strategy had run its course, FrameWorks landed on a new strategy that emphasized child development. By moving from a vulnerable child frame to a brain development frame, they were able to achieve remarkable results in policy wins, in shifting political will, and in child outcomes.
In 2020, PCA America partnered with the Within Our Reach office at Social Current to review and update this work. The resulting “Reframing Childhood Adversity: Promoting Upstream Approaches” brief puts forth a new framing around prevention as we look to remodel “child welfare” systems into “child and family well-being” systems.
A lot has happened since then, and a lot has changed in science and the prevention field, including how we talk about child development, adversity, and well-being.
PCA America joined forces with Social Current to update the 2004 prevention framing brief, so that all of you, and other child welfare and prevention advocates are equipped with the communication strategies you need to effectively advocate for your programs, and policy changes at the state and local level. Our vision is that this takes hold in the field, and all of you join millions of others in continuing to shift how we talk about child development, childhood adversity, positive childhood experiences and HOPE. We would like to challenge all of you to think about how we do things differently, and how we engage others, expand our partnerships, and ensure these recommendations are brought to life in all our work, so our messages from California to Vermont and Montana to Alabama are common, strong, and unified.