April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and provides an important reminder we need to make prevention a priority when it comes to child abuse and neglect. Research suggests that for every dollar spent on early childhood prevention programs we save between $4 and $7. Investing in prevention translates to fewer dollars spent on foster care, welfare, juvenile justice and a host of other programs further down the road.

When it comes to child abuse, we’re clearly talking about more than just dollars and cents. Abuse has detrimental and lasting consequences for a developing child. Effective prevention programs that foster child well-being and promote the security and stability of families hold promise – improving parent-child relationships, reducing likelihood for abuse, promoting child well-being, and lessening the current financial strain on our child welfare system.

Investing in prevention is more important now than ever. While evidence on the effects of the recent economic recession is mixed, both anecdotal and empirical data point to noticeable spikes in child abuse following the recession. For example, a recent Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study found that every one percent increase in 90-day mortgage delinquencies over a one-year period was associated with a three percent increase in children’s hospital admissions for physical child abuse, and a five percent increase for traumatic brain injuries suspected to be caused by child abuse.

In light of such emerging data, and given the relatively low percentage of families who – even when maltreatment is substantiated – receive any services at all – we need to dedicate our efforts to identifying and providing effective prevention services to families at high-risk for child abuse and neglect. This is difficult to do under the current federal child welfare financing structure. Currently, the federal government spends approximately 10 times more on foster care than on preventative services. This is due to both limited federal and state funding and current restrictions in the allowable use of funds. One potential solution might be for states to directly access federal funds such as under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act (P.L. 74-271) for investments in a broad continuum of services for children and families including prevention, early intervention, and post-permanency services.

A large body of research has shown that low-income families see higher rates of abuse and neglect. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s latest National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, from 2005 to 2006, children in households with low socioeconomic status experienced maltreatment at five times the rate of other children, and were seven times as likely to be neglected. Rates of neglect for children with an unemployed parent were two to three times higher than children with employed parents.

Incidents of child abuse and neglect are not unique to low-income families. However, these families do have unique stressors, such as job loss, housing instability, and more limited access to goods and services. Poverty is essential a proxy for risk. Such life stressors can hinder a parent’s ability to provide sufficient psychological as well as material support to their children. We need to help these struggling families by supporting programs that keep children and their families in their homes and out of poverty.

Yet the outlook is rather grim. Under sequestration, which took effect on March 1, 2013, federal spending on services for vulnerable children and families took a large cut. This includes:

  • A $124 million cut to child welfare spending, including almost a $7.7 million cut to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment (CAPTA) programs. CAPTA funds community-based child abuse prevention programs which provide a range of services designed to strengthen families. Unfortunately, it continues to be underfunded and these community-based organizations often have to rely on charitable donations. CAPTA needs to be adequately funded in order to effectively protect vulnerable children by supporting parents experiencing job loss and financial stress.
  • A $6.5 million cut to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Authorized by the Affordable Care Act, it allows nurses, social workers, or other professionals to meet with at-risk families in their homes, evaluate the families’ circumstances, and connect families with the resources and supports needed to make a real difference in developing healthy-parent child relationships in high-risk families. This program needs continued investment and effective programs should be broadly replicated.

Cuts like these, as well as others to safety net programs like the Child Care Development Block Grant and the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) put additional stress on at-risk families who are already struggling. It is up to us to collect stories of the effects of these sequestration cuts on the families and children in our communities and use them to send a message to Congress to undo sequestration and increase investment in these vital programs and services.

Providing supports and services for at-risk families is critical to ensuring that they never enter the child welfare system in the first place. For additional information on National Child Abuse Prevention Month, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families’ website.