Another day, another child abused, neglected or killed. Another question of how can this keep happening?
Through our book, Anna Age, Eight: The data driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment, we sought to explain why terrible things keep happening to our children. There is good news amid the horrific headlines. We know exactly which vital services can prevent maltreatment. What we need to do differently is make sure that these services exist and connect to vulnerable families.
Let’s take a journey into a fictional world in which struggling families can get on a path to thriving — in five steps.
Step one: Safe pregnancies and births. Imagine a 20-year-old expectant mother named Mary, whose boyfriend Jim was recently sent to prison for substance use and property crimes. At her first prenatal visit, Mary indicated that she uses meth and marijuana. Mary’s OB/GYN connects her with substance abuse treatment and a local home-visiting program. The local program assigns Joan as a navigator to assist Mary in accessing services. Joan visits Mary’s home and connects her with the services she needs to ensure a safe home for her baby. Joan also supports Mary in attending her medical and counseling appointments. When baby Nathan is born, Mary is offered long-acting reversible contraceptives, so that she can choose when and if baby Nathan gets a sibling.
Step two: Safe early childhoods. Joan connects Mary to services that help once baby Nathan is born. Joan gets Mary on the list for a child care center that provides infant care, all the way through pre-K. Nathan is healthy. Joan gives Mary tips on breastfeeding, safe sleep and connects her with child care services so that Mary gets a break now and then. When Joan notices signs of postpartum depression in Mary, she makes her an appointment with a doctor who prescribes antidepressants that are safe to use while breastfeeding.
Step three: The community shares data to keep Mary and her baby healthy. Because, in this fantasy future, there is a comprehensive data system that connects government and non-profit agency systems, when Jim is getting released on parole, Joan gets a notification and is able to meet with Jim and his parole officer Ben, who also serves as a navigator.
Step four: Navigator Ben helps Jim find a job and classes at the community college. Navigators Ben and Joan, working with Mary and Jim, all communicate to come up with a plan to make sure the newly reunited family can thrive. Jim is connected with a mentorship program for new fathers, and counseling to keep him from relapsing. Joan continues to make regular visits to Mary.
Step five: Jim and Mary are empowered and employed. The couple eventually connect to training and jobs that pay enough for them to have secure housing, stable groceries and health care. Because navigator Joan had put baby Nathan on the list early on, he has access to a quality early childhood learning programs that will make sure Nathan is ready to learn when he starts kindergarten.
Five steps can lead to cost-effective results: a healthy, safe and self-sufficient family that contributes to the local economy. And the investment of community resources, navigators and a software system that connects all key family services pays for itself. The alternative is our status quo that says deeply troubled parents should fix themselves on their own. We’ve seen the results. Instead, we vote for collaboration, compassion and technology — and a future where every child thrives.
Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello are the co-authors of Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment. They live in Santa Fe.