Dollars and Priorities: Preventing Child Abuse

Finally, something they can agree on.

Over the past five months we have been publishing columns focused on the big issues with how the federal government pays for child welfare.

In the course of that coverage our two primary columnists – Richard Wexler, a staunch advocate for keeping families together and largely dismantling the foster care system, and Sean Hughes, who is more inclined to boost funding to foster care while also supporting families – have strongly disagreed over what the data tells us and what we should do differently.

But, in this installment of our Dollars and Priorities series, the focus lands on the idea of “prevention.” And here is where, for the first time in the past few months, I discern accord between Wexler and Hughes.

Hughes notes that prevention is often conflated with intervention; programs implemented after a call of abuse are lodged. True prevention, Hughes argues (and I would agree) happens before a call of abuse is ever lodged.

In terms of prevention, Wexler calls for a “social justice” approach to prevention that would include expanded resources for housing, childcare and drug treatment. He also calls for interventions that would give “caseworkers ‘flex funds’” to help families in crisis; augment “wraparound” programs tailored to the needs of families and providing “high-quality legal defense counsel for families.”

“We don’t have to wipe out poverty to significantly reduce child abuse, just ameliorate its worst effects,” he writes.

So both men support an investment in efforts to prevent maltreatment from happening and, in some circumstances, preventing the use of foster care when maltreatment does occur.

While Wexler is does not specify a mechanism to pay for the preventions and interventions he lists, one can assume, from his prolific derision of the foster care system, that money could be diverted from out-of-home care.

Hughes’ explicitly objects to moving money from out-of-home care to pay for prevention or some of the interventions that Wexler suggests. But he does support significant expansion to programs and policies that prevent child abuse. He points to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Services program, a federal program “which provides information and coaching to new and expecting mothers to, among other things, prevent abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place.”

And he agrees with language from the draft Family First Act, a federal bill that would invest in “evidence-based prevention” programs.

Hughes also calls for using data analytics to help direct prevention services to families who present with heightened risk factors for child abuse. Wexler has vociferously opposed the use of so-called predictive analytics in child welfare, but I wonder what he would say if it was only to be used to deploy preventive programs like Nurse Home Visiting, housing vouchers or substance abuse counseling to families who the algorithms show are in most need before a call of abuse is ever lodged.

Whether or not the two can see eye to eye on predictive analytics, it seems clear that there are some aspects of prevention they can agree upon.

What would happen if the child welfare community more aggressively advocated for increased research, experimentation and policy in the arena of true prevention?

Even if we do fall short of eliminating poverty, could we significantly ameliorate its worst effects?

Read Wexler’s take on prevention here, and click here to see what Hughes has to say.

Click here to read all of The Chronicle‘s continuing coverage of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 182 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at