The (Near) Future of Abuse Prevention: A Conversation with Joan Duffell

Child Abuse Prevention Month (April) is just around the corner, so PR Manager Allison Wedell Schumacher sat down with Joan Cole Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, to talk about the organization’s past, present, and future in abuse prevention, and about our new Child Protection Unit that will be released later this year.

AWS

Committee for Children is known for the 25-year-old Second Step program, which teaches social-emotional (SEL) skills. But haven’t we been leaders in child protection even longer?

JCD

Definitely. We started working in child protection in the late 70s and developed the Talking About Touching program, the country’s first child protection program focused on teaching skills to both kids and adults. After that came the Second Step program, and then our groundbreaking work in bullying prevention.

We’ve recently taken a fresh look at our mission and programs, and we’ve decided to develop an integrated set of tools based in SEL and focused on the same critical areas educators are required to address: bullying prevention, substance abuse prevention, and child protection.

We’ve integrated bullying prevention into the Second Step curriculum (through our new Bullying Prevention Unit), and we’re developing a new Child Protection Training. There is strong research support for integrating child protection strategies with SEL, and Second Step skills will serve as an ideal foundation for teaching children these additional safety skills.

We’re drawing on 35 years of experience in research and best practices in preventing child abuse. For example, at the height of the Catholic Church’s clergy abuse crisis, we worked with dioceses across the US to implement research-based sexual abuse prevention programs. That experience has taught us a lot about introducing effective prevention strategies into large systems. We’re familiar with how schools operate and where implementation most often succeeds and fails, and we know what kids, educators, and parents need to know to keep children safe.

AWS

You said “educators and parents” in addition to kids. How do the adults figure into this?

JCD

Research, best practices, and sheer common sense tell us that it’s ineffective (and I would add unjust) to place the entire burden of child abuse prevention on kids themselves. It’s our job as adults to keep children safe. Prevention science tells us that the social-ecological model- training the adults closest to the child (parents, caregivers, and educators), the community at large, and the kids themselves- is the most effective approach to preventing abuse. Our new Child Protection Training will include all of these elements.

The new program provides staff training such as those recommended by Erin’s Law, which is being adopted by many states. The adult training connects to the safety skills kids will learn in the accompanying student lessons. And the lessons leverage kids’ previous learning from the Second Step program.

AWS

It sounds like this training can teach adults to help keep kids safe and also to respond appropriately when something unsafe happens. Why is adult training so important?

JCD

I think the most compelling argument for adults to learn to respond effectively comes from the well-regarded ACES study: the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey. One set of the ACES findings gives credence to something survivors of abuse know all too well: Left unchecked, child abuse leads to dire consequences in childhood and well into adulthood, such as school failure, eating disorders, alcoholism, and severe mental illness. But the inverse is also true: If abuse is caught early- if the child reports it, the adults respond appropriately, and early treatment is provided- research shows negative effects can be greatly mitigated. So since we can teach kids to report and adults to respond appropriately, we can make a real difference.

In developing the training for adults, we asked ourselves, “Who is in the primary position to protect children?” Parents are the first and foremost protectors of kids, and caregivers and educators are crucial protectors, too. Most states have laws requiring educators and caregivers be trained in abuse prevention and reporting.

So parents and educators are looking for sound resources that can teach them in a straightforward manner how to promote children’s safety.

AWS

I know discussing this subject matter can make people uncomfortable. How do you address that?

JCD

Some people find it distressing that sexual abuse prevention is discussed in school. But the new program keeps sexuality out of the conversation.

Our frame is safety, first and foremost. Kids start by learning safety rules, such as the importance of buckling seatbelts, wearing bike helmets, and staying away from guns and matches. Then we move on to safety with other people, which includes touching safety. The primary skill emphasis in the child-focused lessons is on reporting abuse to a trusted adult.

Once parents actually see our child protection materials, there’s a sigh of relief. We encourage teachers to hold a parent session before teaching the program so parents can see the materials for themselves. We’re developing several videos for parents, too, and plan to launch a broader parent education campaign nationally.

AWS

So developing a research-based program that addresses all these crucial safety issues is a lot of work, right?

JCD

Oh, absolutely. Teachers know good curriculum design when they see it, and they should demand nothing less than a pedagogically sound, conceptually integrated prevention strategy. This makes the best use of teacher time, optimizes student learning opportunities, and maximizes schools’ resources.

But if our job is big, educators’ jobs are bigger still. Whenever we develop a curriculum, I’m always struck by the fact that no matter how much work we put into it, the teachers are the true agents of change. Our mission wouldn’t happen without them, since they’re the ones on the front lines, working directly with children, putting our programs to work.