April is Child Abuse Awareness Month

By Sara Steimer

Child Abuse Awareness Month

April is designated as “National Child Abuse Prevention Month,” and during this month we as a community come together to review and educate ourselves on the warning signs and risk factors of child abuse. April was given the designation of Child Abuse Awareness Month in 1983 because child abuse was, and unfortunately still is, all too common and often times goes unseen to the untrained eye.

Experts in their fields have worked hard to develop and employ strategies designed to prevent and reduce child abuse by pinpointing specific vulnerabilities in families and working with them before abuse takes place. The best way to prevent child abuse is to work with communities and families before any abuse actually happens.

Child Abuse Prevention Framework

The Child Maltreatment Prevention Framework was created through a collaboration between several child maltreatment prevention programs to create guidelines on child abuse prevention. The Child Abuse Prevention Framework identifies and recognizes child abuse prevention occurring at three (3) levels[1].

The first level of prevention is known as Universal or Primary prevention. This type of prevention is directed at the general population as a whole to prevent child abuse before it takes place. Primary prevention tactics include the following: public service announcements about reporting suspected abuse and encouraging positive parenting; parenting education and support groups focused on child development; and family support and strengthening programs that enhance the ability of families to access existing services and resources that support positive interactions among families.

The second level of prevention is High Risk or Secondary prevention. This prevention is targeted at specific families or populations identified as being high risk for child abuse occurrence, based on specific risk factors and vulnerabilities. These factors can include poverty, parental mental health concerns, or disabilities suffered by parents and/or children.

According to The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, prevention services at the second level that are specifically targeted at these families and communities include the following: “parent education programs located in high schools, focusing on teen parents, or those within substance abuse treatment programs for mothers and families with young children; parent support groups that help parents deal with their everyday stresses and meet the challenges and responsibilities of parenting; home visiting programs that provide support and assistance to expecting and new mothers in their homes; respite care for families that have children with special needs; family resource centers that offer information and referral services to families living in low-income neighborhoods.”

The final prevention level is known as Indicated or Tertiary prevention. This level is directed at families where child abuse has already occurred, and is designed to help prevent reoccurrence of abuse and to reduce the negative consequences of the abuse suffered. Tactics for prevention at this level include the following: “Intensive family preservation services with trained mental health counselors that are available to families 24 hours per day for a short period of time (e.g., 6 to 8 weeks), parent mentor programs with stable, non-abusive families acting as "role models" and providing support to families in crisis, parent support groups that help parents transform negative practices and beliefs into positive parenting behaviors and attitudes, mental health services for children and families affected by maltreatment to improve family communication and functioning.”

The Role of the Juvenile and Family Courts

In Allegheny County both the Juvenile and Family courts are located in the same building in downtown Pittsburgh. This is for good reason; despite playing different roles in the judicial process, the two often have significant overlap and need to cooperate to achieve the best outcomes for the families and children they serve.

The Juvenile and Family courts play a key role in prevention of child abuse, but not usually until a family has reached the indicated level of prevention. It is the job of the courts to help decide the next best steps for families in these difficult situations, whether that be to remove the child/children from the home or to return them to their parents. It is also the court that gets to decide how future visitations should take place to best protect the child/children, while simultaneously protecting the parents’ constitutionally protected rights.

The courts also play a crucial role in helping connect these families at the indicated level to resources such as counselors, support groups, drug and alcohol evaluation and treatments, mental health evaluations and subsequent mental health services, and other services to prevent any future abuse or mistreatment. The courts also have the responsibility to follow up with parents to be sure they are enrolled and are using the recommended resources, and creating new recommendations upon review of those results.

What Neighborhood Legal Services is Doing to Help Prevent Child Abuse

One of the main responsibilities of NLS’s Family Law Department is handling Protection from Abuse (PFA) cases at the final hearing level on behalf of victims alleging abuse suffered from a known person, such as a spouse or parent. In fact, NLS staff attorneys and interns are responsible for addressing approximately half of all PFA hearings before the court in Allegheny County, and are recognized as experts in the field.

The PFA matters addressed include those filed on behalf of a minor child by a parent, a household member, or a guardian. NLS staff members work together with the victims, the court, and often local child protective services agencies (CYF, CPS, etc.) to form solutions that would best protect the child/children, while respecting the other parties’ rights.

These solutions can involve the following examples:

  • Requiring defendants to undergo certain treatments and evaluations they may not have undergone without court intervention before they are permitted to continue exercising their custodial rights to time with the child/children;
  • Supervised custodial visits for the defendant and child. This is often used for young children who do not have the capacity to protect themselves from the defendant. These visits are often done by a trained supervisor watching and working with defendants to learn how to better interact with their child/children;
  • And reunification counseling to help promote healthy communication between the parent and child/children and to help mend their injured relationship.

NLS also has the benefit of having trained social workers on staff to help clients and attorneys coordinate necessary supports from a broad range of agencies. Our social workers are extremely knowledgeable on community resources that may be available for victims in these cases, and can guide them through the processes of finding and applying for these resources.

How YOU can Help Contribute to the Prevention of Child Abuse

Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes efforts from the whole community to help combat and prevent child abuse. If you see or suspect child abuse is taking place you can contact The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services using their 24/7 ChildLine phone number at 1-800-932-0313 to make a referral. You can also visit The PA DHS website or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website for more resources on child abuse prevention.

[1] “Framework for Prevention of Child Maltreatment.” Child Welfare Information Gateway, The U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources, https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/overview/framework/#three.

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