On November 19, an international coalition of NGOs used World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse to host events about and bring attention to a threat faced by children all over the world. While most child abuse and neglect prevention strategies focus on parents – by educating them on parenting methods or treating underlying risk factors such as alcohol abuse – this coalition instead addresses the wider culture. This strategy holds that a supportive community can lead parents to make better parenting choices and can help them overcome challenges, whereas negative societal influence can overwhelm even well-intentioned parents.
In the latest The Future of Children volume, Preventing Child Maltreatment, one article looked at the community’s role in preventing child abuse from taking place. The authors found that social environment affects norms about appropriate child-raising behaviors and the acceptability of parents seeking external support when encountering challenges. In addition, positive interactions between neighbors increase the likelihood that parents will feel responsible for and act to protect all children in the neighborhood, whereas isolating and unfriendly neighborhoods may increase parental stress and their tendencies to neglect or mistreat their children. Formal community services can improve parents’ mental health and parenting capabilities and provide temporary relief from parental responsibilities.
The article highlights some innovative community programs that are designed to change a community’s atmosphere and norms to reduce child maltreatment. For instance, Triple-P in South Carolina has offered community-level information campaigns and parenting advice sessions through existing institutions such as child care centers and preschools. The Durham Family Initiative in North Carolina expands the availability of community services and uses outreach workers to build relationships in at-risk communities, address neighborhood needs, and build human capital through leadership and mentoring programs. Both these and other programs have shown promising results in reducing child abuse and neglect cases — suggesting that well-informed, well-equipped, and socially cohesive neighborhoods aid child wellbeing.
These programs face major challenges, however; costs can be significant, and changing behavior and investing in social networks can be difficult. In addition, more work needs to focus on which communities are most in need of such programs and most likely to benefit from them. Of course, individual factors play a major role in child maltreatment cases, so a community approach alone cannot solve problems of child abuse and neglect. Still, building up a supportive community is an important step toward protecting children.