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Introduction: Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in Center Settings

You have a leadership role in preventing child abuse and neglect. This lesson will review the definitions of child abuse and neglect. Then you will learn about ways to strengthen families and your staff to prevent child abuse and neglect.

  • Describe the importance of relationships as protective factors in preventing child abuse and neglect.
  • Describe strategies for building relationships with staff members.
  • Define child abuse and neglect, including institutional abuse and neglect.
  • Describe how child abuse and neglect can be prevented through a protective factors approach.
  • Identify and implement approaches that strengthen staff members.


Think back to your childhood. Can you think of a time when you felt completely safe? Hold an image of the place or the experience in your mind. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What sensations do you feel? What emotions does it evoke? Who is there with you? What do they do to make you feel safe?

For some of us, this might be an easy exercise. Some childhoods were full of safe and happy memories from which to choose. For others of us, though, this exercise is challenging. There might be few times when we experienced a feeling of complete safety, and those times might be shaded by memories of other, uncomfortable or scary experiences or events. All of us, regardless of our backgrounds, likely feel a sense of gratitude toward those people and places who helped us feel safe.

There is a growing body of evidence that these moments, these relationships, these safe places where we feel loved and protected can make all the difference in our lives. Consider Sara’s story:

Sara’s Story

Sara is an amazing mom. She is incredibly bright, very reflective, and successful in her career. She is caring, loving, nurturing, responsive, and has a phenomenal relationship with her husband and children. She is the model of personal and professional success.

Sara had a traumatic childhood. Her mother was severely mentally ill, sometimes abusive, sometimes neglectful, sometimes not present, and often suicidal. Her father was violent toward her mother. They lived in extreme poverty. When asked how she has been able to do so well given her overwhelming history of trauma, her answer was “No matter what I went through and no matter how awful it was sometimes, I know and felt how much my parents loved me. I knew that no matter how difficult life was for them, they wanted the best for me. They loved me as best they could, and they would do anything for me.”

Sara’s story reminds us of several important ideas. First, all parents love their children very much and are doing the best they can. This is important to remember when we begin working with families. Second, the parent-child bond is strong even in the most difficult relationships — children love their parents. Third, history is not destiny: children who were mistreated do not all grow up to abuse their own children. Fourth, unconditional love makes a big difference in a child’s life. It is easy to imagine that Sara probably also had many other people rooting for her and helping her succeed. Love from a parent is critical, but extended family, neighbors, teachers, social workers, and counselors can all contribute to safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.

Clearly, relationships are the first and most important foundation in a child’s life. Sara had a relationship with her parents, but it is also likely that she had strong relationships with other adults around her: teachers, coaches, or neighbors. These relationships helped Sara bounce back from the challenges she encountered. As a program leader, you have an important opportunity to ensure each child has meaningful relationships like Sara did. You help staff members develop secure relationships with the children in your programs. It is never too early or too late for a child to build connections with adults around them. These relationships help children see adults as trusted figures. Children are reminded that adults care about them and can help in times of need. Relationships also help staff understand each child deeply and help them act in each child’s best interests. This includes taking important steps to prevent child abuse and neglect in your program.

As you remember from the course on Child Abuse Identification and Reporting, child abuse and neglect can be institutional as well as familial. This means child abuse and neglect can happen in your program. This lesson will review the concept of institutional abuse and neglect. The remaining lessons in this course will help you learn specific strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect in your program.

You have already completed a course on identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, and you will continue to have regular professional development on this topic throughout your career. Let’s just take a few moments to review the major definitions of child abuse and neglect.

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Source: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 3.

The Department of Defense (DoDD 6400.1, 2004) defines child abuse and neglect as follows:

Child abuse and neglect includes physical injury, sexual maltreatment, emotional maltreatment, deprivation of necessities or combinations for a child by an individual responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances indicating that the child's welfare is harmed or threatened. The term encompasses both acts and omissions on the part of a responsible person. A child is a person under 18 years of age for whom a parent, guardian, foster parent, caretaker, employee of a residential facility or any staff person providing out-of-home care is legally responsible. The term child means a natural child, adopted child, stepchild, foster child or ward. The term also includes an individual of any age who is incapable for self-support because of a mental or physical incapacity and for whom treatment in a medical treatment facility is authorized.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesMIL and the military Family Advocacy Program, child abuse and neglect generally falls into one of these four categories:


Neglect includes the failure to provide for a child's basic needs despite being financially able to do so. Neglect may be:

  • Physical, when an adult fails to provide necessary food, shelter, or appropriate supervision
  • Medical, when an adult fails to provide necessary medical or mental-health treatment
  • Educational, when an adult fails to educate a child or attend to special education needs
  • Emotional, when an adult fails to provide attention to a child's emotional needs, fails to provide psychological care, or permits the child to use alcohol or drugs

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse  is defined as non-accidental physical harm to a child by actions such as:

  • punching
  • beating
  • kicking
  • biting
  • shaking
  • throwing
  • stabbing
  • choking
  • hitting
  • burning

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats, and rejection. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, emotional abuse may occur when a child is:

  • Ignored: An adult may not look at or respond to a child.
  • Rejected: An adult actively refuses a child by denying their needs or ridiculing them.
  • Isolated: A child is prevented from having interactions with peers, family members, or other adults.
  • Exploited or corrupted: A child is taught or encouraged to engage in illegal or inappropriate behaviors like stealing.
  • Verbally assaulted: An adult constantly belittles, shames, ridicules, or threatens a child.
  • Terrorized: An adult threatens or bullies the child and creates a climate of fear; the child or a loved one may be placed in a dangerous situation or threatened with harm.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes sexual activity toward or involving a child. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, it may include:

  • Fondling or groping a child's genitals
  • Making a child touch an adult's sexual organs
  • Penetration of any kind that does not have a valid medical purpose
  • Incest, rape, and sodomy
  • Exposing one's self to a child
  • Exposing children to pornographic material
  • Deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Involving a child in prostitution
  • Involving a child in the production of any sexually explicit images

Who Commits Child Abuse and Neglect?

People who commit child abuse and neglect can come from any walk of life. Some risk factors are associated with an increased likelihood that someone might commit abuse or neglect. These include:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Difficulties controlling emotions, words, or behaviors
  • Harsh approach to discipline
  • Mental health issues
  • Little knowledge of child development
  • History of maltreatment as a child

When a child is abused or neglected by a parent, guardian, or family member, it is called familial abuse. This type of abuse typically happens in the child’s home.

When a child is abused or neglected by someone else in a supervisory role (like a teacher, coach, or community member), it is called institutional or out-of-home abuse. The Department of Defense is committed to making sure each and every child is safe while in its programs. The remainder of this course will focus on ways to make sure children are never mistreated in your program. You will learn frameworks, strategies, and supports for helping to make this happen.

What is Institutional Abuse and Neglect?

Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as “out-of-home” or “extra-familial” abuse or neglect.MIL Throughout the rest of this course, institutional abuse will refer to abuse or neglect which may occur in Department of Defense-sponsored facilities, programs, or activities. This course will focus on abuse or neglect which may occur in child development centers, family child care homes, sponsored field trips, and school-age care programs. Remember, though, that institutional abuse can also occur in installation homework or computer centers, mentoring or tutoring programs, sports programs, chapel programs, scouts, Morale Welfare and Recreation programs, teen centers and youth programs. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer.

How Can Child Abuse and Neglect be Prevented in Child Development and School-Age Programs?

The lessons that follow in this course will describe specific strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect in your program. To begin this course, though, take a few moments to think about yourself and how you can get ready for the important work you will do with staff and children. Think about how you will go about (a) ensuring staff know why and how to form relationships and (b) forming your own bonds with staff, children, and families. Consider the following relationship-building strategies (Brewster & Railsback, 2003, pp. 12-17):

  • Demonstrate honesty and integrity. You are a role model for the people in your program, so always act with sincerity and follow through on your commitments. It is important that staff members, families, and children know they can count on you to keep your word.
  • Show that you care. Be curious and interested in all the people who walk into your program.
  • Be accessible. Encourage open communication between yourself and staff members. Open your door. Walk around the program often. Say hello. When someone needs to talk to you, make the time.
  • Facilitate and model effective communication. Listen actively. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand.” You will learn more about these strategies in the Communication course.
  • Involve staff in decision-making. Ask staff members’ about their views on the issues that affect them in the program. Work with management to set up systems that let staff members have a voice in program decisions.
  • Celebrate experimentation and support risk. Give staff members the space to try out new ideas.
  • Express value for dissenting views. Make sure staff members know they are safe to express their opinions without fear of reprisal.
  • Reduce staff members’ sense of vulnerability. In your words and actions, support your staff members. Assume that they are working in the best interests of the children and seek to protect them from undeserved criticism.
  • Ensure staff members have the resources they need. Staff members will trust you more when they know you are committed to helping them get what they need—and that you do so in a timely manner.

Next, understand that every person has strengths they can draw upon to prevent child abuse and neglect. These are known as protective factors. You learned about the Strengthening Families protective factors in the Child Abuse Identification and Reporting course. You can review the Protective Factors Framework by visiting The table below provides an overview of the protective factors that are important in your work with families and, as you will learn, important in your own efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect in center settings.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors (Figure 1)

  1. Parental Resilience

    Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.

  2. Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

    Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.

  3. Social Connections

    Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.

  4. Concrete Supports in Times of Need

    Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.

  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children

    Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.

The same protective factors that help families cope with challenges apply to all of us as adults. Let’s explore each of the protective factors and how they might apply to your work with staff members. This material has been adapted from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Adult resilience: We all need the ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. In the context of this particular course, let’s think about the stresses associated with suspecting and reporting child abuse or neglect. Staff may feel stress that they are unable to protect a child. They may feel stress over their relationship with the family. They may feel stress about their reputation in the program or the program’s reputation in the community. The emotions staff feel may make them feel less capable of doing their jobs. Stress can reduce their capacity to think creatively, be patient, problem solve, and try new skills – all strategies that are necessary in child development and school-age programs. The stress might make a staff member feel less capable of doing their job or less capable of protecting children. The stress may reduce their capacity to cope with the stresses of work and their own family lives. Each one of us has strengths we can draw upon: faith, flexibility, humor, communication skills, problem-solving skills, mutually supportive caring relationships, or the ability to identify and access outside resources ( We can take the time to make sure we nurture and expand these strengths in ourselves and others. Build some time for fun into your program. Encourage one another.
  • Knowledge of child development: It seems obvious, but understanding typical child development is critical for staff members. Unrealistic expectations for children’s behavior are major risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Make sure you help staff know what to expect from the children in your care. When you see unrealistic expectations, step in and counsel staff. In a stressful situation, this knowledge helps staff remain calm, recognize child development in action, and create a teachable moment. You will learn more in the lessons that follow.
  • Social connections: Research suggests that strong social connections promote health, wellness, and longevity. Help staff members build strong relationships with one another and with families. Plan staff events: celebrations, meals, outings. Spend time getting to know one another and building trust. Also make sure there is some time during the day when staff members can talk to other adults. Make sure everyone gets the breaks they need and that there is time for relaxation and connection at some point each day. This will help you all do your jobs better.
  • Concrete supports: We all need tools to help us do our jobs. It is OK—and important—to ask for help when it is needed. You are a resource for the staff members in your program. You know the curriculum or programming, you know the community, and you know the families. Provide the supports staff members need when they need it. Maybe they need help planning learning experiences, or maybe they need connected to a disability specialist. Know your staff members and help meet their needs. Also remember that they are not immune to stress outside of work, too. They might be experiencing any number of stressors at home. Seek out and use community resources, whether it’s assistance with filing taxes, finding quality health care, or job assistance for a spouse or partner.
  • Social and emotional competence of children: This is the foundation of the work we do every day in child development and school-age programs. You will learn much more about this topic in the Social and Guidance courses. For now, understand your role as one of helping staff promote healthy relationships, communication skills, and self-expression.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Child Abuse: Prevention Course Guide.

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


Think about the protective factors that you learned about in this lesson. Download and print the Building a Safe Place activity. Reflect on the questions provided for each protective factor. In the Notes column, describe your responses and steps you think you could take to promote these factors. Then identify what your role is in promoting each of the protective factors. Discuss your notes with your management team.


To learn more about the Protective Factors Framework, download and print the Strengthening Families Brochure. This resource describes each of the protective factors in depth. Think about how these protective factors apply to staff, families, and yourself.


Protective factors:
Conditions or attributes in individuals, families, or communities that promote health and well-being


Shelby, a staff member in your toddler classroom and a mother of 6-month-old twins, seems to always have a smile on her face. Some days it’s difficult just to get the boys dressed and in the car, but Shelby always seems to bounce back from every challenge. This is an example of which protective factor?
Mel’s husband lost his job at the local restaurant. Although Mel works full time in your program, they need her husband’s income to pay the bills and feed the family. Mel and her husband go to a local employment office and talk to staff there about ways to improve his applications and interviewing skills. She also receives information about how to get assistance with the family’s utility bills. This is an example of which protective factor?
Desmond is a single dad. He serves in the military and is stationed far from his extended family. He participates in all the family events at the school-age program and often gets together with other families from his daughters’ school on Saturdays. When Desmond needs to work late or go out of town, he has a close group of neighbors who care for his daughters. This best describes which protective factor?
Your program offers a staff lounge. It is a comfortable lounge area where staff members can gather, work on the computer, write plans, and look at curricula or resources. Information about the curriculum and child development are provided. Posters and brochures for community agencies and help-lines are available. There is a computer, phone, and private space if staff members need to have private conversations with families or one another. It is also near the office, so staff members can ask questions or get help if needed. Which protective factors is your program supporting? Choose the best answer.
True or false? Protective factors do not apply to my own life and my family. They are only something I help families in our program promote.
References & Resources

Brewster, C., & Railsback, J. (2003). Building Trusting Relationships for School Improvement: Implications for Principals and Teachers. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory: Office of Planning and Service Coordination. Accessible from

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. Retrieved from

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. Retrieved from

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 Retrieved from

Friends National Resource Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention. (n.d.). Evaluation Toolkit. Available from

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. Retrieved from

Harris, N. B. (2014) How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file]. Retrieved from

Military One Source. (n.d.). Military Family Advocacy Programs. Retrieved from

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.