- Identify protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.
- Describe the stress factors related to family trauma.
- Identify resources in your program and community for supporting families.
Think about these three words: Safety, Stability, and Nurture. What do they mean? Think about a relationship in your own life that was represented by these three words. What did others in the relationship do that made it feel safe, stable, and nurturing? What impact did that relationship have on your life? Whether you recognize it or not, relationships like these likely shaped your outlook on the world and your ability to succeed. Let’s take a look at a few relationships that could be considered safe, stable, and nurturing.
Like all families, Chandra’s, Charlotte’s, and Ravi’s families have experienced some stress. Whether faced with single parenting, relocation, separation, financial or job-related stress, strong families are resilient and bounce back. No matter what, they make sure their children have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships. Chandra’s mom has extended family support, close friends, and a strong bond with her infant. She is beginning to build a strong relationship with the caregiver at the child development center. Charlotte’s parents understand her emotional needs. They help her maintain connections with old friends and build new friendships. Ravi’s family communicates with one another, celebrates one another, and spends time connecting and reconnecting.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider safe, stable, and nurturing relationships like these one of the “essentials of childhood.” Let’s explore how the Centers for Disease Control define these three words.
- Safety: Safety is “the extent to which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm.” This means that adults protect child from harm. Adults regulate their own emotions and monitor children’s development.
- Stability: Stability is “the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment.” This means the child comes to learn that the world is a manageable place. Consistent family routines are one way stability is provided for children.
- Nurture: Nurture is “the extent to which a parent or caregiver is available and able to sensitively respond to and meet the needs of their child.”
Safety, stability, and nurturing relationships are important throughout our lives. Unfortunately, trauma (like abuse or neglect) can damage or destroy a child’s sense of safety, stability, and nurture. This impacts development. Now think about the children, ages birth to 12, in your programs. Do all of them have relationships that are safe, stable, and nurturing? Based on what you have learned already in this course, it is clear that for some children the answer is, “no.” We do not have to accept that for an answer, though. It is our job to help strengthen families and help each and every person look back on their childhood and answer, “yes.”
You can do this by being aware of the stressors affecting your families. Being involved in a suspected case of child abuse or neglect can bring a great deal of stress to a family. The rest of this lesson will focus on (a) the behaviors or issues you might see after a family has been involved in a report and (b) how to help families that have experienced this kind of trauma. Remember: any time you are uncomfortable or don’t know what to do, talk to FAP or social workers about resources or ideas. You do not need to face anything alone.
Model Ways to Support Families
The following list of strategies is from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide. Consider ways you can use these strategies to support families who have experienced trauma:
- Understand that parents’ reactions (including anger, resentment, or avoidance) may be reactions to trauma. Do not take them personally.
- Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not “bad.” Blaming or judging them is likely to make the situation worse.
- Recognize that all parents want the children to be safe and healthy. Compliment parents’ good decisions and healthy choices when you see them.
- Stay calm, and keep your voice as neutral and non-threatening as possible. Model direct and honest communication.
- Be consistent. When you make a commitment, follow through.
- Be aware that you could experience secondary traumatic stress, which can occur when you see or hear about trauma to others. Take care of yourself and take time to address your own reactions when you feel you are getting overwhelmed.
You should become aware of the resources available to families in your communityMIL or on your installation:
- The military Family Advocacy Program, victim advocacy, and transitional compensation exist to address family abuse through prevention, intervention, treatment and victim assistance. Visit http://www.militaryonesource.mil/abuse for more information.
- The Family Readiness System (FRS) is the network of programs, services, people, and agencies, and the collaboration among them, that promotes the readiness and quality of life of service members and their families. The services available through the Family Readiness System can help families develop new skills and tackle life’s challenges in every stage of military life. Services vary by installation but may include: mobility and deployment assistance, relocation assistance, personal financial management, spouse education and career services, family life education, emergency family assistance, domestic abuse prevention and response services, child-abuse prevention and response services, new parent support, exceptional family member support, non-medical individual and family counseling, transition assistance, morale, welfare, and recreation, and Information and referral.
- Non-medical counseling is available to all Service members and their families at no cost. Non-medical counseling programs provide confidential, short term counseling to active duty members, National Guard and reserve service members and their families. Counselors possess a master’s or doctorate degree in a mental health field and are licensed or certified in a state, territory or the District of Columbia to practice independently. Non-medical counseling is designed to address issues such as improving relationships at home and work, stress management, adjustment issues (for example, returning from a deployment), marital problems, parenting, and grief and loss issues. These personal sessions are available face-to-face, by phone, and online. Non-medical counseling is not designed to address long-term issues such as child abuse or neglect, domestic violence, suicidal ideation and mental health issues. But it can be an option for families that are facing short-term stressors. For more information, visit https://www.militaryonesource.mil/confidential-help/non-medical-counseling.
Model Communicating with Families
You may also find yourself supporting the management team when instances of abuse or neglect have been reported. It is not unusual for families to want information about allegations of child abuse or neglect. If a child who attends the program was harmed, families might want or need guidance about how to talk to their children. In your role, you will support the manager as she or he communicates with families and provides them with information that relates to their child’s care and education. You should be aware that all program staff (including managers) must carefully follow guidance provided to you about communication.
Allegations of Familial Abuse or Neglect
When the allegation of abuse relates to familial abuse, confidentiality is of utmost importance. Ensure that you and staff members respect the family’s privacy. You cannot share information about the allegation, investigation, or circumstances surrounding the report or recovery with anyone other than investigators and those with a professional need to know (FAP, CPS, etc.). This includes sharing information about who made the report. Violating confidentiality can, in some cases, be grounds for disciplinary action, impact the investigation, and make the program vulnerable to legal action from the family. Privacy for the family must be maintained. They decide when and with whom any information is shared. If a child has been seriously harmed or killed, however, it is expected that the other children and families might need guidance and support. Call your Family Advocacy Program and Social Work Services. They can help provide counseling and/or educational events for families about processing emotions, talking to children about trauma, and recovering as a community. You should also re-evaluate your program’s services to families around the protective factors at times like these. Are you doing everything you can to help families build resilience, develop social connections, learn about child development and parenting, gain access to concrete supports, and build the social and emotional competence of their children?
Allegations of Institutional Abuse
For allegations of abuse that took place in the program (allegations of institutional abuse), families might have very valid concerns about their child’s safety. They might want to know what has happened to the staff member, whether there is any risk their child was involved, whether the children are safe now, and what steps have been taken. They may even withdraw their child from the program.
In allegations of institutional abuse, patrons should be notified only in accordance with guidance provided by the installation Commander and the Public Affairs Office. You should be available to talk to families in accordance with the guidance provided by FAO and the installation Commander. Counseling for families should be made available through Social Work Services. Also contact your Family Advocacy Program Manager about education services that can be provided to families.
You should work together with your manager to make sure that the alleged perpetrator of suspected abuse or neglect maintains confidentiality. He or she should not discuss the accusation during the investigation with other staff members, volunteers, providers, parents, or the victim. Make it clear to all staff members that this is the expectation and the requirement. It is natural for staff members to be curious about the situation and to want details. You must model the expectations that staff members will behave professionally during this difficult time and that they will not discuss the allegation. Set the expectation that they will not engage in gossip, hearsay, and misinformation that can damage the program and its reputation. Remind them to refer families with questions to the Family Advocacy Program or social workers.
Many families who are involved in allegations of child abuse or neglect have experienced some kind of trauma. This might mean they experienced abuse or neglect themselves as children. There may also be domestic violence toward adults in the home. They may experience family or community violence.
Trauma can influence how a family interacts with you. Look for these characteristics (Preventing Child Maltreatment, 2013):
- Families that have experienced trauma may find it difficult to build trusting relationships with you. It might not be easy for them to trust anyone.
- Families might perceive aggression or danger where it does not exist. They may struggle with keeping themselves or their children safe. You might find yourself questioning their decision-making.
- They may abuse drugs or alcohol.
- They may have a hard time controlling their emotions.
- They may seem numb or “shut down.”
Take some time to think about how you can support families who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. Read these scenarios and think about how you would respond.
One of your staff members recently reported a suspicion of abuse concerning Desmond's family. Desmond's father is irate. He is very angry that he got a call at work from investigators, and he wants to know who made the report. Although information about the report was not disclosed to him, he knows it had to have come from the program. He wants to talk to the person who is "out to get" his family and who is "spreading lies". He accuses the program of emotionally abusing his child and negatively labeling his family. He says he is going to the media, the police, and the commander.
Based on what you learned in this lesson and throughout this course, write a different ending for the Miller family. At each critical time point in Braden and Bethany’s story, think about what could have happened to change the family’s trajectory. Download and print the Case Study Reflection activity. Describe the resources, supports, or conversations that might have made a difference for the siblings and their foster family. Try to think very specifically about what you could do for families in your program if any of these events occurred. Then think about a few conversations that might have happened between the Miller family and the program staff. Think about what you would say or do in each scenario. When you are finished, review expert responses and continue your reflection.
Reflecting on Abuse and Neglect
These tip sheets from Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide are designed to be distributed to parents and caregivers to address a particular parenting concern or question. The information is easy to read and focuses on concrete strategies parents and caregivers can use to take care of their children and strengthen their families. Each tip sheet is available in English and Spanish.
Download and print the Tip Sheets. Be prepared to share them with families or put them in your program’s family resource area.
Spend some time reflecting on ways you strengthen families. Download and print Self-Assessment adapted from the Strengthening Families Program Self-Assessment. Work with your manager to reflect upon your program’s interactions and relationships with families.
Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2020). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/
Felitti, Vince J. et al. (1998) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 14, p 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8 https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Harper Browne, C. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching out and reaching deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy. https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Branching-Out-and-Reaching-Deeper.pdf
Harris, N. B. (2014) How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file]. https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime
Karageorge, K. & Kendall, R. (2008). The Role of Professional Child Care Providers in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect. Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Strategic Direction for Child Maltreatment Prevention: Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013). Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide.