Why Child Maltreatment Should be Viewed as a Public Health Issue, Not an Unsolvable Problem

By Kim Dvorchak and Amy Templeman

In several recent Washington Post articles, reporters have put a spotlight on the drop in calls to child abuse hotlines during the COVID-19 pandemic and have surmised that this drop reflects a potential rise in child abuse cases. Their argument suggests that fewer calls are the result of fewer eyes on children.

As advocates for children and families, we are glad to see the increased media attention on child safety and family well-being during the pandemic. However, we share a concern that this type of coverage can be misleading when it implies the only answer to these concerns is increased reporting. 

While it is important to raise these issues, as the Post has done consistently across this pandemic, it is equally important to share solutions. Just as journalists would not highlight stories of suicide without offering mental health hotlines, it is vital to provide families experiencing stress with support options that can help prevent child abuse and neglect. 

Child maltreatment is a public health issue and is preventable. When the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) issued its groundbreaking report in 2016, Within Our Reach: A National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, they envisioned a 21st century child welfare system that was realigned toward prevention and a public health approach to reducing maltreatment and fatalities. This approach is even more critical today in the midst of a pandemic that is highlighting financial, health, and mental health challenges for all families.

Noticably absent in the aforementioned articles in the Post and other news outlets reporting on this issue was any mention of prevention generally, or specific prevention programs, that might help families safely manage the stresses of the pandemic. Research has demonstrated a range of protective factors that can help families weather this storm safely, together. These include enhanced social connections, quality childcare, access to health insurance, engagement with services that reduce stress, and economic benefits that provide for basic human needs. 

There are a number of existing prevention programs that could have been described in these articles. Home visiting programs, such as the Nurse Family Partnership (which has served more than 300,000 families across 40 states) and Family Resource Centers (which include 3,000 centers available in 30 states and the District of Columbia) are just two examples of thousands of prevention-focused programs available to families that can help address family stressors and lower the risk of child maltreatment and entry into foster care. 

The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the National Association of Counsel for Children support efforts to increase funding for these and other evidence-based best practices, and to include promotion of telehealth to support families during this pandemic. In a letter to Congress, our organizations joined a national home visiting coalition requesting a one-time $100 million appropriation for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV) to train home visitors to deliver services through telehealth and to provide for the tangible needs of families during the pandemic. We have also requested that virtual visits be considered the same as home visits through the end of the calendar year to meet funding requirements and safely preserve valuable relationships.

We applaud the Post and other news outlets for reporting on the importance of keeping children safe, now and in the future, but we also encourage them, along with the nation’s media, to stress the solutions that exist and offer families the vital resources they need to overcome the challenges all families are facing during this pandemic.

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Kim Dvorchak, JD, is Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children. Amy Templeman is Director of Within Our Reach at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.