What is Prevention?

Professionals working to prevent child abuse and neglect have incorporated ideas and information from other disciplines, including public health, education, and mental health, to influence and guide practice.

Public health, however, has had the greatest influence in organizing a framework of prevention services. That framework consists of three levels of services:

  • primary prevention programs–directed at the general population in an effort to prevent maltreatment before it occurs (universal)
  • secondary prevention programs–targeted to individuals or families in which maltreatment is more likely (high risk)
  • tertiary prevention programs–targeted toward families in which abuse has already occurred (indicated)

Distinctions among primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention do not necessarily reflect the way prevention-related services are actually organized and provided. Rather than sorting prevention initiatives into mutually exclusive categories, prevention is increasingly recognized as occurring along a continuum.

A comprehensive system of care for improving outcomes for children and families must include strategies that coordinate resources across the entire continuum, from primary to secondary to tertiary prevention.

Primary prevention

Primary prevention activities are directed at the general population and attempt to stop maltreatment before it occurs. All members of the community have access to and may benefit from these services. Primary prevention activities with a universal focus seeks to raise the awareness of the general public, service providers, and decision-makers about the scope and problems associated with child maltreatment. Universal approaches to primary prevention might include:

  • Public service announcements that encourage positive parenting
  • Parent education programs and support groups that focus on child development, age-appropriate expectations, and the roles and responsibilities of parenting
  • Family support and family strengthening programs that enhance the ability of families to access existing services, and resources to support positive interactions among family members
  • Public awareness campaigns that provide information on how and where to report suspected child abuse and neglect

Secondary prevention

Secondary prevention activities with a high-risk focus are offered to populations that have one or more risk factors associated with child maltreatment, such as poverty, parental substance abuse, young parental age, parental mental health concerns, and parental or child disabilities. Programs may target services for communities or neighborhoods that have a high incidence of any or all of these risk factors. Approaches to prevention programs that focus on high-risk populations might include:

  • Parent education programs located in high schools, focusing on teen parents, or those within substance abuse treatment programs for mothers and families with young children
  • Parent support groups that help parents deal with their everyday stresses and meet the challenges and responsibilities of parenting
  • Home visiting programs that provide support and assistance to expecting and new mothers in their homes
  • Respite care for families that have children with special needs
  • Family resource centers that offer information and referral services to families living in low-income neighborhoods

Tertiary prevention

Tertiary prevention activities focus on families where maltreatment has already occurred (indicated) and seek to reduce the negative consequences of the maltreatment and to prevent its recurrence. These prevention programs may include services such as:

  • Intensive family preservation services with trained mental health counselors that are available to families 24 hours per day for a short period of time (e.g., 6 to 8 weeks)
  • Parent mentor programs with stable, non-abusive families acting as “role models” and providing support to families in crisis
  • Parent support groups that help parents transform negative practices and beliefs into positive parenting behaviors and attitudes
  • Mental health services for children and families affected by maltreatment to improve family communication and functioning