By Amy Templeman and Laura Pinsoneault

According to the latest data, children in the U.S. are healthier and safer than ever before, and medical advances in treating childhood diseases have made enormous strides over the last few decades. The U.S. child mortality rate has also improved over time. Despite these advances, the number of child deaths due to abuse and neglect has remained steady or even increased, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Project. Just as we can prevent childhood illnesses, child maltreatment can be prevented, and the associated risk factors can be treated. Child maltreatment deaths are not inevitable.

Within Our Reach and the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities are working with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime on a demonstration initiative at five sites to develop multidisciplinary strategies and responses to address serious or near-death injuries as a result of child abuse or neglect and identify ways to reduce them.

The strategies that each site are developing will be informed, in part, by the recommendations and work of the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, which released its groundbreaking report in March 2016.

The five participating sites include St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut; Cook County Health, Illinois; Indiana State Department of Health; Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; and Sacramento County’s Child Abuse Prevention Council. 

A fundamental element of the strategic planning effort will be technical assistance provided by a team of national experts focusing on improved data collection and analysis using a safety science approach, development of strong community collaboratives, engagement of persons with lived experiences, and developmental evaluation. 

Over the course of the project, we will be sharing key guidance from each of our technical assistance team members, starting with the training and resources provided by Dr. Laura Pinsoneault, president and CEO of Evaluation Plus.

An expert and practitioner in the use of evaluation tools that can help support large scale and complex systems change, Dr. Pinsoneault is helping our team understand the importance of using developmental evaluation (DE) when dealing with more complex issues where both environments and outcomes can be unpredictable. 

As systems undergo change, they evolve. DE offers evaluation tools that are able to support strategic decision-making, helping systems be more responsive and adaptive.

Developmental evaluation helps us make decisions about the best possible approaches for success. It helps us be more adaptive working on challenging issues in increasingly complex environments.

Development evaluation can be contrasted with the more common formative and summative evaluation processes by using the analogy of a recipe. With formative and summative evaluation, you know what you want the outcome to look like; you have a recipe you are pretty sure works; you know what all the ingredients are; and you are pretty sure that the people who are going to eat it will like it.  With DE, it is like being told to make something nourishing but not everybody agrees on what that is or what should go into it.

For example, building on the recipe analogy, a DE approach acknowledges that there are a lot of items to choose from in the pantry, but perhaps not the exact ingredients needed. Perhaps it is not the right time of year to find a particular fresh ingredient, and that might require variations to the recipe. These variations in turn may change the type of pan you use or the temperature at which you prepare your recipe. And finally, your end goal may not be the creation of a specific dish, but rather a successful meal that everyone enjoys.

Most of all, a DE approach requires evaluators to have a comfort level with ambiguity, understanding of systems, willingness to make errors, a willingness to challenge existing assumptions and change course, and the capacity to bring data to the table to help make decisions.

Ultimately, using all of the evaluation tools in the toolbox is critical to driving meaningful change at a systems level that can achieve the goal of ensuring the safety and well-being of children.

Disclaimer: This product was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-V3-GX-K005, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.