Program in College of Education works to reduce child abuse

It’s no secret that child abuse is a chronic issue locally and nationally, but the UO College of Education is working at identifying changes people can make to stop it before it starts.

In Lane County alone, according to the research of the Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect, 1 in 3 children — about 24,000 in all — have experienced some form of abuse or neglect by age 18. Statewide, Oregon agencies received 80,683 reports of child abuse in 2017, nearly half of whom were younger than 6 years old. 

To reverse the trend, the College of Education’s Jeff Todahl and Phyllis Barkhurst co-founded and co-direct the abuse prevention center as well as its largest project, the 90by30 initiative, which wants to reduce child abuse in Lane County by 90 percent by 2030. 

A partnership between campus and the community, 90by30 is based in the college and draws on local community member insights and the expertise of faculty and staff in the Center for Prevention of Abuse and Neglect.

“It’s a problem that all of us care about,” Todahl said, “but it’s a complicated issue. And we’ve found that a concerted effort that pulls in all aspects of a child’s community — parents, teachers, caregivers — one that points to actionable steps that any one of us can take, works best at stopping abuse before it starts.”

One way Todahl and Barkhurst are working at mobilizing more community involvement is through the K(no)w More campaign, which they rolled out in April in conjunction with Child Abuse Prevention Month.

K(no)w More, inspired by the center’s partnership with Australia’s National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, is based on the principles of social connection and community involvement. K(no)w More points to many ways all community members can participate and builds on the theme of “A Connected Child Is a Protected Child.”

After spending almost 30 years working with survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, Barkhurst has seen the problem persist. But since 2011 she’s been working to prevent abuse by addressing conditions before they affect children and families.

“Our research shows that we can really have a far greater impact on families and prevent abuse by strengthening their connections with the community,” Barkhurst said. “By fostering these bonds, we connect families with the resources they need and help them feel there is help out there for them.”

The K(no)w More initiative emphasizes the role and contribution of all sectors, such as educators. Because of their frequent interactions with students, educators often are at the forefront of the issue. They can connect children and families in Lane County with the local resources and programs they need, such as Roots of Empathy, Early Learning Alliance and Kids in Transition to School, for example.

Additionally, while schools have the opportunity to offer curriculums that work to prevent abuse and relationship violence, K(no)W More provides additional resources to members of the community, businesses, youth activity leaders and the media, among others.

“The K(no)w More campaign is generating momentum in the community so that members of the general public can see themselves taking action,” Todahl said. “We can no longer rely on government organizations and agencies to do the work. It has to happen in our neighborhoods.”

Last year, the College of Education’s Center for Prevention of Abuse and Neglect conducted a pilot run of the Oregon Child Abuse Prevalence Study to test a method of getting a more accurate picture of the prevalence of child abuse in Lane County. It showed 52 percent of youth participants reported experiencing at least one type of physical assault by an adult. 

The study also indicated that policymakers, advocates, parents and people working to support children and families overwhelmingly agree that the existing statistics often understate the actual abuse and neglect that occurs.

To raise the profile of K(no)w More and in conjunction with Child Abuse Prevention Month, thousands of bright blue and silver pinwheels were planted across the county at schools, local businesses and organizations as “the symbol of a carefree childhood.”

The Center for Prevention of Abuse and Neglect also currently has two bills in front of the state Legislature for public funding to support conducting the abuse study statewide during the 2019-20 academic year.

“Once we get a crystal-clear picture of the scope of this problem, we can better know what resources we need to provide and the scale at which we need to provide them,” Todahl said. “Then we can begin to make measureable gains statewide at stemming child abuse before it starts.”

Students from beyond the College of Education support the prevention center, 90by30 and abuse study. That includes paid research and program assistants, interns and volunteers. 

Those interested in working on efforts to prevent abuse, evaluate the effectiveness of prevention efforts and conduct primary research across the state can contact any of the above programs for more information.

—By Lyle Jarvis, College of Education