A public health approach to child maltreatment prevention is critical, argues University of South Carolina’s Professor Ron Prinz

In the emerging field of child maltreatment prevention, public health approaches to prevent child abuse are novel but necessary, the director of the University of South Carolina’s Parenting and Family Research Center, Professor Ron Prinz, writes in a recent edition of the journal, Child Abuse & Neglect.

Ron Prinz

Professor Ron Prinz

Professor Prinz argues that interventions focusing on improving parenting are a crucial ingredient to the prevention of child maltreatment. However, few parents will sign up for a program that explicitly sets out to reduce child abuse.

He suggests that researchers who have been trained in disciplines that focus heavily on strategies which help one family at a time, or in small groups, could benefit from lessons learnt from public health campaigns, such as anti-smoking and public safety campaigns.

“Several years ago, parking lot footage played repeatedly on CNN of an abusive parent caught in the act was both alarming and informative,’’ Professor Prinz writes.

“The parent first buckled the young child into a car seat located in the back seat and then proceeded to pummel her with fists. Somehow even an abusive parent had been affected by public health messaging to secure the child properly in the car seat.’’

Professor Prinz said that while it was still an open question whether public health strategies could make a dent in child-maltreatment related indicators at a population level, several years ago, his group conducted a controlled study to test the proposition using the Triple P—Positive Parenting Program system.

“Despite power constraints associated with having only 9 Triple P counties and 9 comparison counties, the study showed that large effects could be produced on child out-of-home placements, child hospital-treated maltreatment injuries, and CM substantiations,’’ Professor Prinz writes.

“This type of study sorely needs to be replicated, although getting communities, states, and funders to embrace a place randomization design is not easy.’’

He says that while broad parenting intervention is important, it must be joined with other critical facets of a public health approach, such as the need to address poverty factors and parental substance abuse.

Professor Prinz argues that the parenting-focused aspects of child maltreatment prevention can extend beyond the original goal, including the prevention of childhood social, emotional, and behavioural problems; the reduction of risk for adverse adolescent outcomes (such as substance use, delinquency and academic failure); and parental engagement for school readiness.

He also suggests that media can help normalise help-seeking behaviour among parents and provide positive models of how parents can encourage pro-social behaviour in their children while providing boundaries without resorting to coercive parenting practices.

A public health approach does not mean, Prof Prinz argues, that all parents receive equal access to the same “dose’’ of support.

“Universal access to parenting support is important, but this does not mean every parent in the population needs to participate in the same intensity, or even any, level of parenting support,’’ Professor Prinz writes.

“A blended approach to prevention makes the most sense, which means indicated, selective and universal preventive interventions are combined in an organized framework.’’

The article points out that some families also need support in relation to basic needs, such as food, housing and medical care, parental substance-use problems, mental health disorders, or other specific conditions.

Professor Prinz also suggests that public health approaches to child maltreatment prevention could benefit from linking parenting-focused interventions to broad community mobilisation strategies.

“Efforts like Strong Communities (developed by psychologist Gary Melton and colleagues), which seeks to change the culture within neighbourhoods to one of mutual engagement and assistance, are compatible with interventions that champion and promote pro-social parenting and positive contagion for the raising of healthy children,’’ he writes.