By Amy Templeman, director of the Within Our Reach Office at the Alliance/COA and Julie Sweetland, sociolinguist and senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute

With the final deadline for implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act coming in October, child welfare policymakers and practitioners are looking to how best to utilize title IV-E funding for a range of prevention services, including mental health, substance abuse, and in-home parent skill-based programs for children or youth who are candidates for foster care.

When communicating prevention policies to the public, to media and to stakeholders, challenges emerge. They are notoriously hard to communicate since the results are abstract. How do you quantify, for example, abuse or other problems that didn’t occur? 

Framing scientists are seeking to answer that challenge by changing the way we talk about child welfare. 

In 2004, Prevent Child Abuse America commissioned the first framing study on child abuse and neglect, in part because the strategy of using emotionally evocative stories of abuse and neglect had run its course. Today there is a need for a new framing around prevention as we look to remodel “child welfare” systems into “child and family well-being” systems. We are also reckoning with the evidence of systemic racism in child protective services – such as the harsh reality that children of color are more likely than white children to be removed from their families and placed in foster care – and we are working with communities to design approaches and systems that live up to the ideal of racial justice. 

To make the case for strategies that ensure that every child grows up in safe and nurturing environments, we must widen the lens to depict the factors that shape those environments.
This includes acknowledging that all families face adversity from time to time, as the current pandemic has so exemplified. It means being clear that financial stability is an essential part of weathering any of life’s storms – and that many in our country struggle to keep themselves afloat as income inequality only widens. 

It involves lifting up policy solutions like the proposed new expansion of the child tax credit, expanded childcare subsidies, and family-friendly workplace policies, such as consistent and flexible work schedules and paid family leave. It asks us to become more fluent and more forward in talking about how many child welfare interactions are symptoms of a flawed economy and a lack of conditions that support families, not evidence of a flawed family.  

Focusing on economic issues can’t be a substitute, however, for speaking directly to issues of racial justice. The two are related, but they shouldn’t be conflated. To do so would risk missing issues like implicit bias or the disparate racial impact of child welfare policies. 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.

In addition to widening the lens, we need to bring prevention into crisper focus, using that clarity to disrupt the assumption that child abuse and neglect – or its worst outcomes – are bound to happen. As Dr. David Sanders, chairman of the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities noted in his forward to the Commission’s seminal 2016 report: “Child protection is perhaps the only field where some child deaths are assumed to be inevitable, no matter how hard we work to stop them. This is certainly not true in the airline industry, where safety is paramount and commercial airline crashes are never seen as inevitable.” 

We need ways to reframe child abuse and maltreatment fatalities as a preventable public issue, and, most importantly, a solvable one.

We can increase support for prevention by emphasizing the connection between now and later – and by giving concrete, realistic examples of what prevention looks like in action. It is equally important to emphasize that solutions exist and to champion programs that work. The body of evidence-based practices is still growing, however, there are resources that currently exist to help support families in times of need. These include community-based child abuse prevention programs, such as home visiting programs and Family Resource Centers .

Most of all, we need a common commitment to aspirational, solutions-oriented storytelling that moves mindsets beyond narrow conceptions of “problems children experience” to an expansive vision of how to do right by kids. To build a broader constituency for those approaches, the story we tell must spark a sense of collective responsibility and offer a sense of realistic hope.

One of the most challenging aspects of communicating a solutions-oriented, preventive message around child welfare is the way in which media outlets cover this topic. Many media outlets cover child welfare primarily through a crime lens that focuses on the consequences of harm after it occurs. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen increasingly hyperbolic stories about the dangers to children who are out of the public eye, most of which speculate on what to make of the fact that calls to child abuse hotlines are down substantially

These stories fit neatly with the larger cultural narrative of vulnerable children, but they are misleading. Experts know that reduced referrals do not tell us the whole story, nor is it fair to say that children are necessarily at higher risk while they are home with their families. In fact, research by Mathematica shows that it is mostly the low-risk referrals that have decreased during the pandemic; the high-risk referrals are still coming through.

As child welfare advocates, we must work to educate and guide journalists on covering child welfare stories from a preventative, public health perspective that highlights resources and solutions that will benefit families in need of support. 

If our field can successfully embrace a common narrative – one that emphasizes that we all have a stake and a role in addressing this issue – we will continue to build critical public support for the momentous shift from child welfare systems to child and family well-being systems that can enable all families to thrive.

Access the Reframing Childhood Adversity: Promoting Upstream Approaches webinar. This webinar will delve into newly released guidance from the FrameWorks Institute for building the public understanding and political will needed to effectively prevent, identify, and address childhood adversity.

Julie Sweetland, PhD is a sociolinguist and senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute. Amy Templeman is director of the Within Our Reach office at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Within Our Reach is supported by Casey Family Programs.

A version of this article previously appeared in The Imprint on March 16, 2021.