Posted: April 30, 2021
By: Catherine Joyner, Executive Director of the Division of Public Health’s Child Abuse Prevention Leadership Team

When you think about public health, what do you envision? Maybe you think of healthy eating and exercise or washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough. And while you would not be wrong, I encourage you to take a step back with me to look at public health’s role in preventing child maltreatment.

For me, public health looks like quality time spent reading to a child, a safe and affordable roof over your head, abundant and nutritious food on the table, the dependable paycheck from a family-friendly workplace, the nurturing educators who build positive brain connections and the neighbors who support you when you need a little help.

The future health and well-being of our communities, our families, and ourselves relies on the healthy growth and development of today’s children. As adults we are responsible for ensuring all children have the safe, stable, nurturing, and healthy environments they need to thrive. Because when children have supportive, loving connections, relationships, and experiences, their brain architecture is built in a healthy way, forming a solid foundation for future growth and development.

But Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), like child abuse and neglect, disrupt healthy brain architecture and cause a toxic stress reaction to occur in the child’s brain. Harmful chemicals flood the child’s brain and body resulting in long-term social, emotional, and health consequences. In fact, ACEs are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life.

Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, ”ACEs are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

But we know child maltreatment is a preventable problem. If we want to build the supportive communities and strong families needed for a healthy future, we must address child maltreatment through a public health approach to prevent the negative health outcomes associated with child maltreatment.

A public health approach adopts three levels of prevention strategies: primary, secondary, and tertiary. While there are critical programs and services that address child maltreatment after it occurs or offer support to families who are at risk for abuse, they lie in the realm secondary and tertiary prevention.

Our work, in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, is focused upstream in the primary prevention of child maltreatment. Primary prevention emphasizes systemic change to improve outcomes for entire populations by preventing risk factors, like parental stress, and increasing protective factors, such as parental resilience, social connections, and concrete supports for parents.

What does this mean for you and me?

It means addressing social determinants of health and disparities across all demographics that place children at risk for child maltreatment, at the community and societal levels.

It means fostering cross-sector collaborations to implement effective upstream strategies to preventing child maltreatment.

It means investing dollars in the proven strategies, programs and policies that build strong families and communities, like economic supports for families, quality care and education early in life, and changing social norms around supports for parents and positive parenting.

It means widespread understanding and adoption of strategies that improve health outcomes for all.

Together, we CAN Prevent Child Abuse, North Carolina.  Let’s build a healthy future for North Carolina, today. Join Prevent Child Abuse NC’s newsletter to take the first step in learning how you can be a connection for children and families.