APA PRESS RELEASE
COMMUNITY PROGRAM SUCCESSFUL IN PREVENTING CHILD ABUSE – MARKS CHILD ABUSE PREVENTION MONTH
Five Questions for Gary Melton, PhD
Gary Melton, PhD
Gary Melton — a psychologist and a professor and director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University (http://www.clemson.edu/ifnl) — focuses on the links among public policy, community supports and the well-being of children and families. As vice chair of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect in the early 1990s, he led the board’s development of a neighborhood-based strategy for child protection. Dr. Melton has led the test of that strategy in Strong Communities for Children, a foundation-funded, community-wide initiative (more than $10 million over 7.5 years) to prevent child abuse and neglect in parts of Greenville and Anderson counties in South Carolina (http://www.clemson.edu/strongcommunities).
To mark Child Abuse Prevention Month, APA spoke with Dr. Melton about the success of his community program and why it is working so well.
APA: What’s wrong with the current approach to protecting children in the United States?
Dr. Melton: The current approach to child protection was adopted in every state in the early 1960s and is now outdated. The hallmark of the approach is mandated reporting and investigation of cases of suspected child abuse and neglect — in essence, case-finding. This strategy was the product of an extraordinarily influential article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. At the time, however, the authors estimated that there were about 300 cases of child maltreatment in the United States each year, but today, we have about 3 million calls each year to Child Protective Services to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Case-finding isn’t the problem!
The designers of the child protection system also typically assumed that there was something very wrong with parents who maltreated their children — that they were very sick or simply very evil. In the majority of cases (both reported and unreported), however, child maltreatment involves neglect, not abuse, and the neglect is not willful. Instead, neglecting parents are typically overwhelmed by a multitude of problems without having the means — both economic and social — to solve them. Their supervision of their children becomes less diligent because they are trying to cope alone with too many social and economic problems.
Unfortunately, the question that the child protection system is designed to answer is, “What happened?” not, “What can we do to help?” And it definitely is not designed to answer the latter question before abuse or neglect occurs.
As the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect concluded, “it has become far easier to pick up the telephone to report one’s neighbor for child abuse than it is for that neighbor to pick up the telephone to request and receive help before the abuse happens.” Instead, we spend vast resources on law-enforcement-style investigations by child protection workers — investigations that usually do not result in meaningful services.
APA: How is your new initiative in the Greenville area different?
Dr. Melton: We are trying to make child protection a part of everyday life. Our ultimate goal of “keeping kids safe” requires that “every child and every parent know that when they have a reason to celebrate, worry or grieve, someone will notice, and someone will care.” Parents should know that someone cares and will be there without their having to become “clients” or “cases” and even without their having to ask for help.
So keeping kids safe is not just the job of the public child welfare agency. Instead, our principal allies are church members, firefighters, civic club members, school staff, pediatricians, apartment managers, real estate agents and “just folks.” Primarily using volunteers, we’re making help available when and where people need it. We’re creating opportunities for families to get together or to seek help in ordinary places — schools, churches, parks, libraries and so forth — so that folks “naturally” recognize needs for help and then lend a hand. The number of ways that they provide help and the amount that they provide keep growing.
APA: Is the Strong Communities program working?
Dr. Melton: My standard answer is that Strong Communities has restored my faith in humanity! At a time when there is an enormous body of evidence showing that people — especially young people — are more and more isolated, unengaged and distrustful, we’ve enlisted more than 5,500 volunteers in seven years in an area that has about 125,000 residents. They’ve joined us through hundreds of churches, hundreds of businesses, virtually all of the civic clubs and active neighborhood associations, many of the schools, and all of the local governments and public safety agencies in the area. It’s a movement, not a program.
And it’s making a difference. Across time and compared with parents living in similar communities not involved in the initiative, randomly selected parents who live in the Strong Communities area indicate that they’ve taken more active steps to protect their children (for example, covering electrical outlets). They report being more nurturing (for example, showing more affection toward their children) and less neglecting (for example, providing adequate supervision).
Moreover, parents, teachers and especially children themselves are more likely to perceive children as safe at school and on the way to school. All three groups also are more likely to perceive the schools as welcoming to parents.
APA: As the economy worsens, should people be especially worried about child abuse and neglect?
Dr. Melton: Economic security is a major factor in child safety. For example, risk increases when a family faces unemployment or high risk of losing a job, and they live in a community with entrenched high rates of unemployment. Parents begin to think that not only are their children not getting what they need, but they themselves can do little to make the situation better. When parents see other parents having the same problems and not finding a way out, they begin to feel hopeless. They may become so depressed that they don’t provide adequate care, or they may become so frustrated that they lash out.
Beyond changing parents’ feelings of helplessness, the reality is that it is harder for parents to care adequately for their children when times are tough. For example, when the home or the neighborhood becomes unsafe because things are in disrepair, it is easier for kids to get hurt. Similarly, when parents lose insurance, they may find it difficult to get health care for their children or themselves and their physical ability to keep things going may suffer.
At the same time, money is not the whole problem. The much longer term trend is toward increased isolation, and that problem crosses social class, although it is most common among the families with the greatest needs. About one in five parents of young children in our area report being very isolated — for example, not having anyone to call when they need emergency child care, not knowing any of the children in the neighborhood by name, and not belonging to any organizations, except perhaps a church. This social poverty occurs frequently in wealthy neighborhoods among college-educated parents, not just among those with many advantages.
My colleague James McDonell has shown that neighborhood cohesiveness does matter, however, in children’s safety. Even when the poverty rate, occupancy rate and other measures of wealth are held constant, neighborhood quality is a very strong factor in children’s safety in their own homes, as measured both by parents’ accounts and by emergency-room records. In other words, in communities where neighbors no longer care enough to keep the neighborhood looking nice and when they are so afraid that they erect fences around their homes, kids’ safety suffers, even in wealthy communities. Again, children are safest when parents believe that others care about them and will step in to help if needed.
APA: Is there hope? Given all of the difficulties that families are facing, can we be assured that children will be safe?
Dr. Melton: Yes, there is hope! There are two facts that are especially heartening.
First, our volunteers in Strong Communities are representative of the communities as a whole. Men and women, older and younger folks, wealthy and disadvantaged, and white, brown and black people all are important in the movement.
However, the engagement actually has been strongest in communities that are more disadvantaged. The most disadvantaged community in our service area makes ups about 10 percent of the population, but we’ve recruited about 40 percent of the volunteers there, and they’ve contributed about 40 percent hours of service.
In short, even in communities under great stress — but not just those communities — it is still possible to engage people in positive steps toward keeping kids safe. The Golden Rule is still a powerful motivator.
Second, looking nationally, there is substantial evidence that the prevalence of physical abuse and sexual abuse declined markedly in the 1990s, although that change did not occur in regard to neglect. My own interpretation is that the community norms across the country became clearer and stronger in regard to abuse: “Don’t do it!” People stopped hitting and exploiting kids as much or as severely. We can treat kids like people, each one deserving respect and security.
However, the lack of change in the rate of neglect suggests that it is not only a more common problem but also a more difficult one. It requires changes in norms about what people should do, not what they must stop. It also requires the whole community’s watching out for each other; maybe “watching over” is an even better metaphor. Strong communities build and sustain strong families. Even in hard times, we can make kids safer when we reach out to parents and give them a hand. Even an occasional night out can make a big difference.
For more information for parents on creating healthful and non-violent environments for their children, go to APA’s ACT site: www.ACTagainstviolence.org.
The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare