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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 18, No. 2
May 2013

Preventing Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being with the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework

Note: the Strengthening Families approach described in this article is distinct from the evidence-based, popular curriculum called the "Strengthening Families Program." (To learn more about the curriculum, go to

North Carolina has long been committed to preventing child maltreatment. The grants provided by the NC Division of Social Services through its Community-Based Programs are a prime example of this. Through its funding to local partners, every year the Division helps provide family preservation services, family support programs, family violence prevention, and other services across the state. We're serious about prevention.

To further deepen this commitment, the Division of Social Services is now taking steps to integrate the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework into our state's child welfare system.

The Framework
The Protective Factors Framework is an approach to increasing family stability, enhancing child development, and reducing child abuse and neglect. Although it is research-based (Horton, 2003), the framework is not a narrowly defined practice or prescriptive model program. Rather, it is a comprehensive approach that focuses on building families' protective factors. Like family-centered social work practice, the Protective Factors Framework is flexible, allowing agencies to apply it in a way that fits naturally with their work with children and families.

Protective Factors
Research has found that to ensure the well-being of children and families, interventions must do two things: reduce risk factors and promote protective factors.

Risk factors are something we know a lot about. Spurred on by research findings, we have incorporated a focus on identifying and responding to social isolation, family violence, and other risk factors for child maltreatment into child welfare policy and the tools we use in child protective services.

Child welfare professionals are less accustomed to thinking about protective factors--conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that reduce risks, build family capacity, and foster resilience (USDHHS, 2003).

The Framework focuses on the five protective factors described in the box below. Research tells us that when these factors are well established in a family, maltreatment is less likely. Research also shows that these protective factors are “promotive,” meaning they build strengths and a family environment that foster optimal child and youth development (CSSP, 2012a).

The Protective Factors Framework

1. Parental Resilience. No one can eliminate stress from parenting, but a parent's capacity for resilience can affect how a parent deals with stress. Resilience is the ability to manage and bounce back from all types of challenges that emerge in every family's life. It means finding ways to solve problems, building and sustaining trusting relationships including relationships with your own child, and knowing how to seek help when necessary.

2. Social Connections. Friends, family members, neighbors and community members provide emotional support, help solve problems, offer parenting advice and give concrete assistance to parents. Networks of support are essential to parents and also offer opportunities for people to "give back," an important part of self-esteem as well as a benefit for the community. Isolated families may need extra help in reaching out to build positive relationships.

3. Concrete Support in Times of Need. Meeting basic economic needs like food, shelter, clothing and health care is essential for families to thrive. Likewise, when families encounter a crisis such as domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse, adequate services and supports need to be in place to provide stability, treatment and help for family members to get through the crisis.

4. Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development. Accurate information about child development and appropriate expectations for children's behavior at every age help parents see their children and youth in a positive light and promote their healthy development. Information can come from many sources, including family members as well as parent education classes and surfing the internet. Studies show information is most effective when it comes at the precise time parents need it to understand their own children. Parents who experienced harsh discipline or other negative childhood experiences may need extra help to change the parenting patterns they learned as children.

5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children. A child or youth's ability to interact positively with others, self-regulate their behavior and effectively communicate their feelings has a positive impact on their relationships with their family, other adults, and peers. Challenging behaviors or delayed development create extra stress for families, so early identification and assistance for both parents and children can head off negative results and keep development on track.

Reprinted from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2012a

A National Effort
The Protective Factors Framework is part of Strengthening Families, an approach more than 30 states are using to shift policy, funding, and training to help programs build protective factors in the children and families they serve. Many states are also using Strengthening Families to integrate prevention strategies, focus on families in the child welfare system, and engage parents and communities.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) coordinates the Strengthening Families approach nationally. CSSP is working with 12+ national partner organizations to realize a vision in which communities, families, institutions, service systems and organizations:

  • Focus on building protective and promotive factors to reduce risk and create optimal outcomes for all children, youth, and families,
  • Recognize and support parents as decision-makers and leaders,
  • Value the culture and unique assets of each family, and
  • Are mutually responsible for better outcomes for children, youth and families (CSSP, 2012b).

North Carolina's Initiative
North Carolina is one of CSSP's national partners. Between now and June 30, 2016, CSSP will work with the NC Division of Social Services as it seeks to use the Strengthening Families approach and the Protective Factors as an overarching framework for child welfare policy and practice with other state and local agencies and community stakeholders, including parents. The goals of the Division's partnership with CSSP are to:

  1. look for ways to integrate the protective factors across child maltreatment prevention fund sources,
  2. analyze the Division's logic models and outcomes and develop a set of outcomes and indicators that broadly measure the impact of the Division's efforts,
  3. increase prevention services grantees' capacity to design and deliver strategies consistent with the protective factors approach,
  4. talk with stakeholders about developing a unified approach to multi-system prevention work in NC, and
  5. embed protective factors as a part of NC's child welfare practice model, helping practitioners and other stakeholders develop an understanding of what it means to have a dual focus on optimal child development (well-being) and family strengthening (safety and permanency).

Over the next three years our state's Strengthening Families efforts will include (CSSP, 2012c):

Policy/Systems Change. Making protective factors part of NC's approach to child welfare services will help us unify and build on what we're doing across the child welfare continuum--from primary prevention through adoption services. In the long run, this will help us prevent child abuse and neglect before they occur and promote the well-being of children served by the child welfare system.

Although policy and systems change will begin with the Division's Child Welfare Services Section, the work will involve collaboration with many other state and local agencies and community stakeholders.

Parent Partnership. The Division will be looking for opportunities where parent leaders can take on leadership roles and provide direction to help us strengthen child welfare services, practices, and policies to improve outcomes for children and families.

Evaluation. As part of its overall commitment to continuous quality improvement, the Division will develop a plan for assessing the success and impact of its efforts to integrate the Strengthening Families approach throughout North Carolina.

Stay Tuned
North Carolina's Strengthening Families initiative is already underway. Over time the strategic efforts that have begun in the Division of Social Services will radiate to other departmental and community programs, bringing benefits to professionals and families across the state.

How Will This Affect Me?

You may be wondering: How will this initiative affect my work with families?

According to people who know, Strengthening Families has a positive impact on child welfare work.

During the Division's March 2013 MRS call, staff from NC county DSS agencies who are already using the approach reported that rather than asking you to do something new, Strengthening Families helps you do a better job of what you are already doing--partnering with families to make them safer, stronger, and healthier.

By explicitly identifying the building of social connections, parental resilience, etc. as goals for our interactions with families, the Strengthening Families framework can help us make our efforts to support families more intentional and effective.


Resources for Learning More

About NC's Initiative

About Strengthening Families

References for this and other articles in this issue