Talking Points & Examples
Make the story one where we all have a stake and a role in outcomes that matter: Always talk about child adversity and child maltreatment in ways that emphasize shared fates. Make the issue a story about “us,” not about “them.” Remind people that we all benefit from child well-being. Likewise, show that the consequences of childhood adversity are also shared. Connect to our collective responsibility to children and remind people that our actions can maximize – or undermine – children’s potential.
What it looks like:
Instead of “their vulnerability”:
Child abuse is a horrific experience – and without intervention, children suffer lifelong effects. Sadly, it’s a common experience in America. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in the United States – and far too many instances go unreported. Every child who is a victim of abuse or neglect deserves coordinated and compassionate services.
Try “our responsibility”:
Every child is filled with tremendous promise – and we have a shared obligation to foster their potential. That means shoring up the ways we support families. Every policy we set – from tax credits to paid leave – should reduce financial pressures on families and increase the time and capacity for supportive family relationships.
Show how external conditions “Get Under The Skin” to shape health, development, and outcomes: Be explicit about the processes that cause and stem from childhood adversity. Highlight big-picture social conditions that increase the risk of adversity, explain how they work, and connect the process to the problem it causes. Locate the problem in social conditions or widely shared experiences, not within households or families. Show how certain situations – such as financial stress, isolation, or behavioral health challenges – put pressure on caregivers’ capacity to engage positively with children.
What it looks like:
Instead of this:
Each year, thousands of children in the United States die at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. Data show that social isolation; young or single parents; parents who struggle with mental health issues, substance abuse, or domestic violence; and lack of parenting skills are all associated with increased risk of child fatality from abuse or neglect. African American children die from child abuse or neglect at a rate that is two-and-a-half times greater than that of white or Hispanic children.
Children need safe, stable environments and relationships to thrive. But decades of housing discrimination mean that Black families today are less likely to live in neighborhoods with good jobs. Chronic stress can lead to a toxic stress response – flooding the body with dangerous levels of stress hormones – and making anger, hostility, and depression more likely. This set of cascading consequences helps explain the link between race and child abuse or neglect. It’s not race, it’s racism.
In the midst of our country’s ongoing racial injustice, it is important to speak directly to issues of racial justice across the child welfare system, including issues of implicit bias and the disproportionality of families of color in the child welfare system. As Dr. Julie Sweetland noted: “In ‘centering race,’ it’s not enough to merely point out disparities, as it leaves room for audiences to assume that the problem lies somehow with people of color. It means explaining the links between a history of injustice, contemporary systems and practices, and the effects on children and families. Framing science shows that when advocates make these connections clear, it increases and broadens support for policies aimed squarely at eliminating racial disparities.”
Emphasize the dynamism of development and the time-sensitive nature of human development: Point out that children and youth develop rapidly and explain how the experiences at each stage have an effect on what happens next. Emphasize that both risk and opportunity are present at every point in a child’s development – and be clear that systems and policies shape the outcomes.
What it looks like: Using metaphors that explain early development:
- Brain Architecture. To help people appreciate why the early stages of life matter, compare child development to setting up the architecture of a house.
- Toxic Stress Response. To give people a way to grasp how adversity affects health and well-being, distinguish between the effects of everyday stress and “toxic stress.”
- Buffering. Describe protective factors as buffering children from toxic stress or the negative impact of risk factors.
Talk about preventing an overload of stress on families: Consistently advance the idea that social conditions and contexts shape family life and children’s experiences. Emphasize external pressures on families, not family dysfunction. To do this, the metaphor of being Overloaded can help. Use this metaphor to describe families experiencing significant stressors such as financial insecurity, housing instability, or hunger. Talk about the solutions you propose as ways to “lessen the load” or “manage the weight.”
What it looks like:
Instead of this:
Child neglect – which can be more harmful than abuse – can include physical neglect (failing to provide food, shelter, or other necessities), emotional neglect (failing to provide love, comfort, or affection), or medical neglect (failing to provide needed medical care). Child neglect is more common in families living in poverty and among parents who are teenagers or who abuse drugs and alcohol. Services such as home visiting, early childhood education, and parent education can prevent child neglect.
Children thrive when they have regular interactions with responsive, caring adults. Yet neglect is the most commonly reported form of child maltreatment, and can have long-term effects on children’s health and development. Child neglect is more likely in families experiencing an overload of stress. The weight of poverty can overload parents’ abilities to provide the supportive relationships children need. Depression or other mental health challenges can also impact parents’ responses to children’s needs.
Don’t talk about the impact of adversity without also explaining people’s capacity for resilience: Highlight the idea that our response to adversity matters. Avoid giving the impression that adverse experiences early in life automatically translate into negative outcomes. To do this, keep the focus on how to counterbalance the weight of adversity – not on the adversity itself. Explain the concept of resilience as “positive outcomes despite negative experiences” and help people see how resources and experiences can promote resilience.
What it looks like:
Instead of this:
Children and youth who have been exposed to adversity often develop behavioral and mental health challenges. They may be irritable, depressed, or have difficulty sleeping or concentrating – and may struggle with school or act out. If nothing breaks the cycle, these patterns may continue into adulthood – and even be passed on to their own children. Assessment, intervention, and treatment can help address these challenges and promote resilience.
When children and youth experience serious adversity, such as witnessing violence, we have a shared responsibility to buffer the impact. One innovative approach involves having pediatricians have a conversation with families about difficult things their children have experienced. If there’s a need, doctors can connect families to resources like family counseling. The idea is to add positive supports to counterbalance the weight of negative experiences.
Always include a proven or promising policy-level solution: Propose concrete, actionable solutions that match the scope of the problem. Frame the problem as a systemic issue, then offer solutions aimed at “fixing conditions” instead of “fixing people.” Give examples of specific actions that legislative bodies, agencies, or jurisdictions could take to head off sources of serious stress on families or specific things they could do to promote child well-being. Champion programs that work.
What it looks like:
Instead of “mission impossible”:
To prevent traumatic experiences from taking a lifelong toll on children’s physical and mental health, we must dismantle the norms and environments that allow them to persist. We have long known the work that needs to be done. It won’t be easy – it involves tackling poverty and changing the mindsets that devalue children and perpetuate violence – but it is possible. The only thing lacking is political will.
Here’s how to make a difference:
Policies that strengthen family financial security can go a long way toward reducing childhood adversity and enhancing the relationships that help children thrive. When families face financial hardship, it sets the stage for more stress and less tuned-in interaction with children. Boosting family incomes through tax credits or paid family leave can relieve the pressure, helping to head off childhood adversity before it happens.
- The Nurse-Family Partnership is one example of a home visiting program that empowers first-time moms to transform their lives and create better futures for themselves and their babies. The Nurse-Family Partnership works by having specially trained nurses regularly visit young, first-time moms-to-be, starting early in the pregnancy and continuing through the child’s second birthday.
- Healthy Families America (HFA) is another example of a home visiting program developed by Prevent Child Abuse America. As one of the leading family support and evidence-based home visiting programs in the United States, HFA promotes positive parenting and child well-being and prevents the abuse and neglect of children in communities around the world through family-focused and empathic support provided in the home.
- Family Resource Centers (FRCs) are family support and strengthening programs located in 3,000 communities nationwide. They are known by many different names across the country, including Family Centers, Family Success Centers, Family Support Centers, and Parent Child Centers. They may be community-based or school-based. They serve as welcoming hubs of community services and opportunities designed to strengthen families. Their activities and programs, typically provided at no or low cost to participants, are developed to reflect and be responsive to the specific needs, cultures, and interests of the communities and populations served.
- Federal and state policies that connect families to economic support services, such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), housing assistance, and nutrition supplements have been shown to strengthen families and reduce child welfare interactions. Research has shown that programs that benefit children and families benefit society. Even modest investments in programs that prevent maltreatment can be highly cost effective, while involvement with the child protection system is costly to society and traumatic and unhealthy to families.
- Additional resources:
- Alia: The Unseen Costs of Foster Care: a Social Return on Investment Study, January 2019.
- Casey Family Programs: Upstream Investment in Children and Families Pays Off.
- Research from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago has consistently shown the positive impacts of economic and concrete supports for families. This brief also illustrates the impact of supportive housing on families in the child welfare system.
- Research from Tufts Medical Center indicates that child abuse incidents dropped during the pandemic and attributes that decrease to financial supports provided to families.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides a resource entitled Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Leveraging the Best Available Evidence that helps states and communities take advantage of the best available evidence to prevent ACEs.
- The National Family Support Network and OMNI Institute just released two new reports detailing the return on investment of Family Resource Centers to the child welfare system.
- New study by Dr. Henry Puls shows that states’ spending on benefit programs was associated with decrease in child maltreatment reporting, substantiations, foster care placements and fatalities.
Avoid triggering the “Family Bubble,” the idea that parents are entirely responsible for children’s outcomes. Don’t zoom in on household-level experiences. Instead, zoom out to larger social contexts. Reframe to emphasize that we all have a stake and a role in child and family well-being.
Avoid triggering “Bad Apples” thinking, or the idea that problems are caused by the actions of a few outlier individuals. Look out for stories that revolve around a single antagonist. Reframe stories to focus on systems rather than individuals.
Avoid triggering “Determinism,” the idea that the future is set and can’t be changed. Watch out for wording that makes it seem that the effects of early adversity are irreversible. Reframe with examples of resilience.
Avoid triggering “Fatalism,” the idea that it’s impossible to do anything to improve the situation. Scan communications for choices that make the scope of childhood adversity seem staggering or suggest that we must completely solve big social problems, such as poverty and racism, to make a difference. Reframe by acknowledging that this is a difficult issue, but the solutions are within our reach.
Avoid triggering “Threat of Modernity” thinking, the idea that today’s society is dangerous and broken. Stay away from stories of how modern life is fraying social connections or breaking family bonds, which can evoke fear and lead to “us” versus “them” thinking. Reframe with the importance of vibrant, healthy communities that have a shared responsibility to support healthy families.
Prevention can be a hard concept for people to understand. Its effects are abstract and absent – a problem that didn’t happen. Also, the effort it involves goes against the grain of the human brain. Framing can help short-circuit some of the hard-wired cognitive biases that make us less likely to act before a problem occurs. These linguistic strategies can help people see the connections between now and later, which can mobilize and motivate preventative action:
- Give concrete examples of what prevention looks like in action. Offer memorable, relatable stories.
- Replace bland process verbs e.g. “encouraging” with vivid action verbs e.g. “tackling.”
- Use “when words” to help focus attention on the present. Signal that prevention is in progress by using words like now, right now, currently, today, etc.
- Show the futures we create by our choice to act or not act.
- Vary your vocabulary. Whenever possible, swap in synonyms and sayings for the standalone term “prevention,” e.g. “upstream solutions.”
Media coverage of child adversity: Many media outlets cover child welfare primarily through a crime lens that focuses on the consequences of harm after it occurs. As we redesign child welfare systems as child and family well-being systems, part of our work is to guide journalists to adapt to covering issues from a preventative, solution-focused, public health perspective. To do this, suggest storylines that position childhood adversity as a solvable problem. Guide journalists to connect childhood adversity to other issues that have the public’s attention, such as health problems and inequity, rising health care costs, substance abuse, or economic inequality. Some potential storylines include:
- ACEs Screening: A new tool for health providers — Health care providers routinely take a history of physical ailments to help them spot potential risks and decide on the best care. Some health systems are finding that taking a history of negative life experiences can put patients’ health needs and risks in a new light — and uncover new directions for treatment. Some are placing big bets that this approach will dramatically reduce health care costs by identifying and addressing problems earlier, when they are easier and less expensive to manage.
- Nurses visiting new parents: A house call that works wonders — In at least 40 states, many new mothers welcome a regular visitor into their homes: a nurse. Specially trained nurses regularly visit young, first-time moms-to-be, educating them on parenting, sharing resources, and performing health checks. Forty years of rigorous evaluation has shown that this model yields a stunning array of positive outcomes, including fewer health problems for mom and baby and reduced incidences of child abuse and nelgect.
- Four factors that boost children’s resilience in the face of adversity – When children go through difficult life experiences such as losing a parent, witnessing or experiencing violence or abuse, or being isolated during a pandemic – what happens next makes all the difference. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has identified four factors that can buffer children who have experienced adversity from negative long term outcomes. These factors include supporting strong relationships with adults; building the children’s sense of can-do; strengthening the child’s ability to manage their emotions; and tapping into sources of hope such as faith or cultural traditions.
- New York Times, “I will never forget I could’ve lived with people who love me,” by Sixto Cancel, September 16, 2021
- “Children should not be placed in foster care because of poverty. If children do enter care, it should be because of true abuse or neglect. These children should be placed with kin first and with foster families as a last resort. We want to see an end to the use of unnecessary group home placements in foster care.”
- “Ending group homes starts by expanding the support we give to families. If we give more and give first to families, kin and communities, we can prevent a lot of youths from having to go through the foster care system at all.”
- “Ending institutional placements and reforming our foster care system will not be easy. Part of the journey will require preventing unnecessary entries into foster care and providing the right support structures for families while encouraging and supporting kin to take in foster children and growing the number of loving foster families available.”
- USA Today Network, “Delaware’s Kids can get the services they need – If Biden leads,” by Kara Odom Walker and Kirsten Olson, April 29, 2021
- “Every child is filled with tremendous promise, and we have a shared obligation to foster their potential.”
- “Years of research have shown that vital social and community supports and other protective factors — good nutrition, safe housing, a healthy environment, supportive family relationships, and access to quality early education — form the foundation needed for our children to thrive. Our policies can help to create the safe, stable environments that children need.”
- “When children and youth experience serious adversity, we have a shared responsibility to buffer the impact. We need to work together to add positive supports to counterbalance the weight of negative experiences.“
- Marin Independent Journal, “Marin Voice: To prevent child abuse, we need to invest in families,” by Bree Marchman, April 14, 2021
- “The best way to prevent child abuse and neglect is to invest in families.”
- “For some families, intergenerational poverty, immigration challenges, racism and political fears have added another layer to the distress or trauma.”
- “We need a community-wide commitment to children and families.”
- The Washington Post, “Foster parents want answers after death of 16-year old in Columbus,” by Tim Craig and Randy Ludlow, April 29, 2021
- “Foster parents, some of whom gathered with their children at a protest to honor Bryant on Sunday, say they need more training on how to de-escalate conflicts, more funding for social workers and more resources devoted to helping children remain with their birth parents.”
- “A lot of times people’s children get taken away because they can’t afford to take care of them, or they don’t have proper housing,” Abdur-Rahim said. “So if we had more resources, children would not get taken away from their families.”
- The New Republic, “How the Pandemic Became an Unplanned Experiment in Abolishing the Child Welfare System,” by Kendra Hurley, August 18, 2021
- “Advocates say the asks are the first steps toward realizing a parent-informed blueprint to overhauling child welfare and replacing it with a new vision of child safety that grants poor Black and brown parents the same dignities routinely allotted other parents. These include that they are not guilty before a finding; that a call for help is met with support rather than suspicion; and that there is an assumption that parents know what their families need.”
- “Economic hardship, which research links to child maltreatment, is part of this picture. Most children in foster care are there not because they’ve been abused, but because of findings of neglect, a classification almost always fueled by poverty.”
- “In addition to requiring implicit bias training for staff, ACS wants to ensure mandated reporters also receive the training along with information on how to connect families to supports without calling the child maltreatment hotline. It is also expanding access to childcare, community hubs of support, and a program that lets some parents named in a maltreatment report avoid investigations by accepting services.”
- The Topeka Capital Journal, “Moving Away from Child Welfare to Child Well-being Through the Family First Prevention Services Act,” by Stacey Tweedy, December 28, 2021
- “Across the nation, including here in Kansas, a stirring conversation is happening in child welfare. Child well-being systems are working to cultivate prevention efforts to aid families in crisis by offering a suite of tailored services. …In Kansas, the focus on prevention has us even using different terminology. We’re moving away from “child welfare” and focusing towards a ‘child and family well-being’ system.”
- “When families encounter DCF (Department of Children and Families), they often are worried or scared. For these families where abuse and neglect are not suspected and families simply need services, the hope is this pilot will provide an avenue for those families needing services to get a referral and not have to be formally involved with DCF.”