By providing support to at-risk families, community members can help prevent child maltreatment

By Hilary Dartt

The best way to keep children safe is to support their parents … and Prevent Child Abuse Arizona has some guidelines on exactly what that support can look like.

As National Child Abuse Prevention Month, April serves as an opportunity to review not only what “prevention” means in this case, but also to consider what people can do, individually, to help protect children.

“When you ask people what prevention is,” said Rebekah Prieto, Development Director at Prevent Child Abuse (PCA) Arizona, “they often say it’s calling DCS if you believe abuse is happening.”

That—taking action after the fact—is actually intervention, Rebekah said. Prevention is about preventing maltreatment from ever happening in the first place, by helping parents cope through stressors and crises which can lead to kids getting hurt.

A recent study by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute revealed that a vast majority of child abuse cases involved neglect—and, Rebekah said, neglect is usually the result of a family not having what it needs to provide a safe, healthy home.

“Most child maltreatment occurs when there is too much stress in parents’ lives,” explained Claire Louge, PCA Arizona’s Training Director.

Sources of stress may include lack of food, money to pay the electric bill, or childcare for a sick child when parents have to work. Sometimes these stressors are all happening at once, and parents simply get overwhelmed.

“Life is stressful,” Claire said. “Parenting is stressful. And it’s not about shifting blame or removing responsibility. It’s about making sure families have what they need to keep kids safe and healthy. Are we structuring our society in a way parents have access to good jobs, affordable, high-quality childcare, and mentorship?”

Prevention, then, is about getting parents the support they need so they can give their children the support they need—physically and emotionally.

It is, said Molly Peterson, an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving PCA Arizona, helping parents fill the gaps they have—whether those gaps are in parenting skills, job skills, or any other area. A little help for a family at the right time can go a long way to helping them stay strong and safe.

The Strengthening Families program is an approach to working with families that focuses on protective factors, which reduce the risks of child maltreatment. PCA Arizona provides Strengthening Families training and support to community professionals throughout the state who work directly with families through early childhood home visiting, child welfare, pediatrics, and other family services.

PCA Arizona recommends that all parents focus on strengthening each of five Protective Factors:

  1. Parental Resilience: the ability to bounce back from stress and cope with challenges in a positive way. When parents can regulate their own emotions, they not only model that skill for their children, but they’re better able to parent even when challenging situations arise.
  2. Social Connections: having friends, family, and community who provide emotional support in tough times, and celebrate good times. Social isolation, Claire said, is a huge predictor of stress—therefore, forming social connections is the best way to lower stress.
  3. Knowledge of Parenting & Child Development: information on how kids grow and how to help each unique child thrive. Increased knowledge of child development empowers parents to form realistic expectations for their children’s behavior, and to best nurture them in developmentally appropriate ways.
  4. Concrete Support in Times of Need: access to services and resources that keep a family safe and healthy, such as food, water, shelter, and healthcare. Concrete support extends to things like having someone to help change a tire or fix a broken dishwasher, Claire said.
  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children: children know they belong, know they’re loved, understand their feelings, and can get along well with others. Although society spends a lot of time cultivating literacy and language skills in children, it’s critical to their success as adults that they also have the chance to build their emotional and resiliency skills—which will help them when they become parents, themselves.

When taken together, the five Protective Factors strengthen families, Claire said, and help prevent child maltreatment.

Parents, then, can strive to strengthen their own resilience, to build and maintain social connections, to educate themselves about child development, to seek help when they need it, and to teach their children these same skills.

And members of this community can also help, by seeking ways to help families strengthen these Protective Factors: ask a parent out for coffee, offer to watch the kids, provide help where it’s needed.

“These are things we’re all doing,” Claire said. “We can all use our strengths to prevent child maltreatment.”

In honor of Rebecca Ruffner’s 30 years of service, Prevent Child Abuse Arizona is starting a Legacy Campaign to continue the work she’s done as founder and executive director of the organization. Investing in prevention, Development Director Rebekah Prieto said, is investing in our community. For more information or to donate, visit