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Mobilizing America to End Child Abuse and Neglect

Ending Child Abuse and Neglect

Setting the Context: Magnitude and Cost of the problem

Child abuse and neglect (CAN) is one of the biggest and most invisible problems that our nation faces. Each year more than 600,000 children are confirmed as victims and many more are harmed by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or neglect – often with life-time consequences. These experiences account for a large proportion of problems as diverse as academic failure, substance use disorders, depression, violence, suicides, school shootings, homelessness, diabetes, emphysema, heart disease, cancer, and premature death.

Given the magnitude of this problem, one might expect that every sector of society would be mobilized. But thus far, our response has not only been muted, but mostly reactive, with organizations and agencies addressing abuse and neglect only after it happens. Moreover, in many states, the child welfare system disproportionately intervenes on behalf of economically insecure families and families of color, in ways that increase their stress and remove children from their families.

But we are at a turning point. Over the past forty years, a huge body of research has pinpointed the conditions that every person needs in order to thrive. We know how to help families, schools, and communities nurture the wellbeing of their children. We have the tools to build a social movement that helps communities ensure that every child arrives at adulthood with the skills, interests, values, and health habits needed to live a productive life in caring relationships with others. And we can prevent inter-generational cycles of maltreatment.


Our thinking about this problem is strongly influenced by the success of the tobacco control movement, which brought about very significant reductions in the prevalence of smoking throughout the nation. The key components of this movement were as follows:

1. Careful monitoring of tobacco use at the community level, the state level, and the national level. These data guided local, state, and national strategy. A policy that showed benefit in reducing smoking, such as an increase in the tobacco tax or the prohibition of smoking in restaurants was disseminated. Policies and programs that were not working were modified or abandoned.
2. The identification of policies and programs that had an impact on tobacco use. This included both interventions with smokers and prevention efforts.
3. Organizing at the community level. This was shown to be particularly important in California where communities throughout the state advocated for policies and programs to reduce tobacco use. The tobacco industry couldn’t keep up with this. It led to the adoption of increasingly effective strategies including increasing the tax on cigarettes. This has resulted in California having the lowest levels of cigarette smoking and significant reductions in cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The implications of this for reducing child abuse and neglect might be summarized as follows:

1. Establish systems of monitoring child abuse and neglect at the community level. Because most child abuse and neglect is not detected by the child welfare system, additional methods of monitoring child abuse and neglect are needed. These might include random sample surveys of parents asking them about their discipline methods, school-based surveys of family conflict, which our own research has shown will produce valid measures of such conflict. Measurement is also needed in institutional settings such as schools, churches, and athletic programs.
2. Target the reduction of child abuse and neglect at the community level. Ultimately, if we are going to reduce child abuse and neglect throughout the nation it will come down to reducing it in every community. Implementing interventions in communities will enable us to detect what works more effectively than if we attempted statewide or national efforts.
3. Identification of evidence-based policies and programs. There is a wealth of evidence about programs that reduce child abuse and neglect. We are less knowledgeable about policies, but we are confident that there is a literature that pinpoints useful policies.
4. Increase federal funding of research on reducing abuse and neglect. NIH and CDC funding were critical in the success of the tobacco control movement.

Here is what this Action Circle is up to: 

  • Collaborating with The National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN) and their collaborative members, we created two Action Circles:

    • Action Circle on Policies to End Child Abuse and Neglect​

      • The first task of the Action Circle was to review the evidence supporting local and national policies to end CAN. This included a broad range of policy mechanisms, some of which may be indirectly related to CAN. The benefit of casting a wide net in our initial review of local and national policies is that it points toward opportunities within those policies to leverage EndCAN’s network and sharpen a given policy’s focus toward ending CAN. The second task of the Action Circle was to identify organizations and institutions that might be advocating for said policies and target them for future collaborations with EndCAN to enhance their collective effort. Although EndCAN (in and of itself) may not have the resources to end CAN, it has a network of collaborative partners who can refine their efforts to include ending CAN through effective advocacy for policy changes. The third task of the Action Circle was to identify activity gaps in current advocacy efforts and to develop a plan for enacting a range of collaborative efforts with stakeholders to (a) fill those activity gaps and (b) end CAN through effective advocacy and policy change.

      • The final product of the Action Circle was a guide that (a) enumerates supporting evidence for and opportunities within local and national policies and programs that have been shown through rigorous research to reduce (and ultimately end) CAN and (b) identifies organizations and institutions whose current and overlapping advocacy efforts could be refined to (or leveraged) to end CAN, and (c) describes a plan for mobilizing Stakeholders, and organizing their collective efforts into a unified approach to end CAN.

    • Action Circle on Promoting a Comprehensive Social Movement to End Child Abuse and Neglect

      • The first task of this Action Circle was to identify other mission-driven social issues that experienced resistance to change. The second task of the Action Circle focused on a subset of those issues and determine (a) who were the primary advocates for that issue, (b) what strategies did they employ to move the needle, and what the impact of those strategies was, (c) and what other elements of their efforts contributed to the success of those movements.

      • A final task of the Action Circle translated what we learn about the success of prior social movements and describe what a social movement to end CAN might look like. This includes articulating the advocacy and community organizing needed to mobilize relevant stakeholders, laying the foundation for replicating the effects of prior social movements, and moving the needle toward ending CAN.

  • The final product of these Action Circles is a Guide to "Mobilizing America to End Child Abuse and Neglect" (Download the Guide here). Most of those strategies are bundled into work that five proposed Action Circles are intended to accomplish:

    • Strengthening media advocacy

    • Addressing child maltreatment, trauma, and trauma-informed care within the medical and behavioral health disciplines

    • Promoting civic engagement to enact effective policy

    • Implementing a research agenda that will inform efforts to prevent child maltreatment

    • Organizing the legal profession to better prevent child maltreatment

  • The next steps are to develop a plan for how local Action Circles could implement some of the recommendations. Please contact us at if you would like help in pursuing these solutions in your community.

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