A Child Abuse Prevention Month Like No Other

April 7, 2020 | Phil Decter


I have been a licensed social worker for almost half my life, working with families in home, hospital, and community settings. My passion for this work is deeply rooted in a family commitment to social justice. Growing up Jewish, post-World War II, our family regularly asked hard questions of ourselves: What does it mean to be a responsible community member, especially during a time of crisis? How does one stand up for a neighbor? How can I support both people who are like me and different from me? How do we act not just for ourselves but for our community? How do I use my privilege for the good of my community?

National Child Abuse Prevention Month is a moment for child welfare social workers and agency staff to step back and celebrate our accomplishments, and, as President Barack Obama said in 2016, to “recommit to giving every child a chance to succeed and to ensuring that every child grows up in a safe, stable, and nurturing environment that is free from abuse and neglect.”

This month should be like we hoped: a moment to step back, celebrate, and recommit. 

It’s also a month that won’t be anything like we planned.

All over the country, all over the world, active child abuse prevention efforts have been turned upside down. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe are under some kind of stay-at-home advisory as COVID-19 creates a danger to us all. Advocates, outreach workers, clinicians, and many of the child abuse and neglect workers who work with families every day are home. Courts that ensure fair and legal efforts, and support permanency and reunification for children, are suspended for months in many parts of the country. Children in group homes are forced to celebrate birthdays and other important life events with their families at a distance. Frontline investigatory child welfare staff have to make horrible decisions: Who to see in person? Who to talk with by phone or video conference? How to do this in a way that everyone stays safe?

Most importantly, vulnerable client populations—survivors of domestic violence, adults and youth in recent recovery, children, families, and adults managing behavioral and mental illness—are in their homes, without the normal supports they would have.

A frightening specter of illness hovers over everything.

Even worse, we are beginning to see signs that the pandemic and its effects are already playing out disproportionately over the same marginalized communities we work with every day. Early indications from Illinois, Milwaukee County, North Carolina, and other places indicate that the hospitalization and mortality rates are higher for African-American communities. Data from New York City indicate that the virus is having a greater impact on less affluent zip codes than on wealthier communities.

Certainly, it makes intuitive sense that people in communities in poverty all over the world, whether in refugee camps or overcrowded urban environments, will not be able to engage in the physical distancing that people in communities of privilege and wealth can do.

We cannot do everything we wish we could do at this moment. The “good of the many” requires practitioners to take action that feels foreign to many of us who have worked with clients and communities—to stay at home and limit our physical contact if we can. But this circumstance doesn’t have to stop us from doing what we can to support our neighbors and to act in solidarity with our clients.

What Can We Do?

With our clients: We can reach out by text, phone, and video chat. When possible, stop by a window to say hello. Playfully engage a child with a game on a computer. Listen to the fears and frustrations of adults. Little pieces of connection will make a difference at this time.

With our neighbors: We can call, email, wave from the street. Connect with people we haven’t taken the time to know. Keep an eye out for the quiet suffering that we know is going on and the small ways we can support people: mutual trips to a pharmacy, a grocery store. We can ask: Do people have what they need? How are children doing?

With our communities: We can stay awake to the suffering in our local communities and across our globe. To take it in when we can, deeply, but to take breaks when needed. We can send money and resources where we can, be prepared to act when we can.

With our colleagues: Many of us are “first responders” still working directly with people; others are friends and family of first responders. If you know staff who are first responders, reach out to them. Check in on their health and emotional well-being. Listen to their stories. Offer solace, support, and appreciation.

During this Child Abuse Prevention Month, we are both called to and limited to some of the foundational skills of this work—perhaps the foundational skills of many of our traditions and ancestors—to engage in small but meaningful actions of loving kindness, connection, and presence. Let’s do more than celebrate Child Abuse Prevention Month. Let’s act on it in the ways we can and perhaps make its impact even more profound than we thought possible. Let’s make it count.

Phil DecterPhil Decter is NCCD’s director of child welfare. For resources related to child protection and COVID-19, click here.