By Amy Templeman

In the last few weeks, we have observed communities coming together in remarkable ways, despite our physical separation. People in cities around the world open their windows and applaud first responders at sunset or shift change, high school and college choirs record musical zoomcasts that bring tears to our eyes, people sew cotton face masks for friends and neighbors, and a large group of nurses from Atlanta, GA travel together to help patients in New York City, where they are needed the most. In my northeast Washington, DC neighborhood, a newly married couple who canceled their wedding reception drive around the block in a decorated car to cheers and well wishes from people on the sidewalk who they have never met before. We all seem to be sending and craving the message: You are not alone. We can do this. And we will need each other to get through it.

During this moment when we are widening our circles, take time to notice the powerful and positive effects neighbors can have on one another. In many ways, we are well-equipped to help each other weather this storm of stress and fear brought on or exacerbated by COVID-19. We can help to build protective factors to keep each other strong. Protective factors are things that can increase the health and well-being of all people – children, adults, families, and communities. For parents, these factors include social connections, quality childcare, and access to services that reduce stress. Helping parents strengthen their foundation of protective factors, especially during this unpredictable time, will make them more likely to withstand and recover from the pressures of the pandemic. Protective factors are particularly important during this crisis, when we have seen increases in calls to national hotlines for parent support and child maltreatment, because these factors help to decrease the risk of harm. 

During the month of April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and in the weeks and months to come as we navigate this public health crisis, many local resources are available to help communities stay strong. Here are some concrete things that you can do to promote health and well-being in your community, adapted from this excellent guide from Futures Without Violence:

1. Keep in touch with your neighbors. Send a text or drop a card in the mailbox of a family member or neighbor who seems socially isolated during this time. Add your phone number and encourage them to contact you if they need someone to talk to.

2. Offer to drop off groceries or other basic necessities. At a time when access to these items is limited, especially for working parents with young children at home, this type of help can lower stress in the household and protect parents from feeling overloaded.

3. Find out what local resources are available right now in your town to stabilize families and prevent a crisis from occurring. For example, Family Resource Centers can help to lower the risk of child maltreatment and entry into foster care. There are more than 3,000 centers available nationwide in 29 states and the District of Columbia. 

4. Contact a crisis counselor for information and referrals to help you support the people you care about. If you are worried about child abuse or neglect, you can call or text the 24/7 national child abuse hotline at 1-800-422-4423 or chat at childhelphotline.org . If you or someone you know needs support, call the national parent helpline at 1-855-427-2736. If you are concerned about domestic violence, contact the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or by chat at thehotline.org . If you or someone you love is experiencing anxiety or panic attacks call the mentalhelp.net hotline.

5. Address your own mental and emotional health, and advocate for your employer to do the same for its employees. For tips and techniques to ensure your own well-being, join webinars on self-care hosted by the Change in Mind Institute at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. They will run every Friday at 11:30am CT and last about 30  minutes through June 26, 2020. Click here to register. 

Your help can make a difference, even for people who find themselves in very challenging situations during this crisis. One mother in Sacramento, California was recently connected through a hotline to a family engagement liaison who helped to connect her to much-needed resources. The woman was three-months pregnant and parenting two school-age children while also experiencing homelessness. She was unable to find a shelter that had space for her family due to COVID-19 and could not obtain hotel vouchers. The liaison listened to the woman’s story and acted quickly to contact a supervisor within a government agency to complete an application over the phone and approve the family for a 14-day hotel voucher plus future rental assistance. The liaison was also able to enroll the mom in a new home visiting program, provide safe sleep education, and find the family a crib for the baby. 

Stories like this one, where families are strengthened and the worst outcomes are prevented, are not told often enough. They are useful stories as they help to illustrate how prevention services are much more useful than services that are provided after harm occurs. Research shows that investments in prevention are more cost-effective than services that need to happen after a crisis. Research has shown that child maltreatment costs the U.S. $428 billion per year. For every $1 invested in prevention services, we save anywhere from $1.79 to more than $20 on the cost of responding to child maltreatment, according to data from Casey Family Programs. Given the high economic burden of child maltreatment, the benefits of prevention programs are undeniable.

Beyond the economic argument, preventing child abuse and neglect is simply the right thing to do. We all share the responsibility to make sure families have what they need, regardless of their situation, and especially if they are under more stress during this pandemic than usual. A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America , a report released by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) in 2019, illustrated how community-based human services organizations help to strengthen individuals, families, and communities by building well-being and providing critical assistance, both preventative and in times of crisis, which enables people to lead healthier and more productive lives. Please do what you can and call upon the resources offered by your local community-based organizations – they were built for this moment.