By Claire Louge, Executive Director

“Child welfare isn’t rocket science. It is harder.” —David Liederman, former director of the Child Welfare League of America

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one reason why child abuse happened, and if we just addressed that one reason, we could prevent child abuse?

I wish it was that simple.

If it was just one thing, we would ask donors for money to address that one thing, we would teach people how to address that one thing, and we would all work together to address that one thing. And the problem would be solved.

But you and I know it’s not just one thing. There is a slew of factors that contribute to child maltreatment. Lack of access to basic needs. Systems that were built to serve some people and not others. Histories of trauma. Isolation. Overwhelm and overload. Unaddressed mental health challenges. Stigma in help-seeking. Lack of trust. Economic hardship. These reasons all have their own set of contributing factors and complex solutions, and not one of these things, taken alone, is the whole reason why child maltreatment continues.

There are, however, a lot of sweeping generalizations out there that herald one explanation for the huge, complex problem that is child maltreatment. Those sweeping generalizations are always incomplete, and they can also be harmful. Take this example:

In conversations about child abuse, have you ever heard someone conclude something like ‘there are just so many bad parents’? I have heard a version of this statement countless times. The ‘bad parent’ frame assumes child maltreatment is caused by people’s inherent, unchangeable nature, and ignores the massive impact of circumstances, or conditions, on human behavior. It also makes it all about them and what they should do and absolves us of responsibility to do anything other than react and judge. If all child abuse and neglect is caused by ‘bad parents’, the only solution is to find them, punish them, and separate them from their kids. This frame leads to over-reporting and over-separation. Family separation is a trauma we should use only if the benefits outweigh the consequences, and the ‘bad parent’ frame leads to its drastic overuse. And that’s bad for kids.

Sweeping generalizations create solutions that have harmful consequences.

Just like the statement ‘child abuse happens because of bad parents,’ there is also danger in broad, simple statements like ‘all neglect is just poverty’ or ‘the system is racist.’ These statements may be informed by data or real stories, but when they are used to explain the whole problem, they can prevent real solutions that address the complexities of the issues we are facing. It doesn’t mean there is no truth within these statements. Rather, they are incomplete.

Are there parents who lack parenting or coping skills? Yes.

Is poverty a major contributing factor to neglect? Yes.

Do racial disparities exist in human-serving systems? Definitely.

Do any of these questions tell the whole story of the problem? No.

To create the solutions we need to address the problem we are trying to solve, we need the whole story. The whole story is never simple, and we are all part of it – as soon as the story becomes only about other people’s behavior, we exclude ourselves from being responsible for our part of the solution.

To tackle this thing we all want to change – child abuse – we need to resist the oversimplification of sweeping generalizations. We must acknowledge its complexity and each take on a piece of it. We need to see the whole story and own our role in it.

After all, child welfare isn’t rocket science. It’s much more complex than that.