Honoring Essential Agents of Change: A Partnership Strategy

By Deborah Mutschler, Massachusetts Essentials for Childhood 

Massachusetts Essentials for Childhood (MA EfC) promotes a variety of opportunities communities can employ to promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments to prevent child abuse and neglect. To highlight an expansive view of partnership, MA EfC created the Essential Agent of Change Awards, which honors community groups with missions that don’t directly address child abuse and neglect prevention, but still strengthen protective factors in families and communities that support safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families.

While experts have successfully raised awareness about the consequences of child abuse and neglect, we can do a better job of educating the public about the factors that prevent child abuse and neglect. Since prevention efforts are focused on all children and families, it is arguable that more people could see a role for themselves in child abuse and neglect prevention when framed as promoting safe, stable, nurturing environments and relationships for everyone. When individuals understand their personal and professional interactions, as well as the policies they support, as a part of prevention efforts, they can recognize themselves as agents of change, even if child abuse and neglect fall outside their stated mission and scope of work.

The aim of Massachusetts Essentials for Childhood is to connect people to communal opportunities to prevent child abuse and neglect.  To demonstrate this concept, MA EfC created the Essential Agent of Change Awards, which honors groups whose activities strengthen one of the five protective factors described in the Strengthening Families framework (parental resilience, knowledge of parenting and child development, social connections, concrete support in times of need, children’s social and emotional competence), but do not include child abuse and neglect in their organizational missions.

For example, representing the protective factor of providing “Concrete Support in Times of Need,” an award was given to New Lease for Homeless Families for their work with large landlords in creating a mechanism which makes it easier for homeless families, who would not normally qualify for private market housing, to enter into leases.  The award helps illustrate that by providing this support to families, New Lease helps create stability and lessen parental stress. In this way, in addition to housing families, New Lease is also strengthening families and preventing abuse and neglect.

Honoring Essential Agents of Change is a strengths-based approach to raising awareness about child abuse and neglect prevention among organizations that may not be aware that their work plays an important role in prevention. The award expands the reach and importance of the work the honorees are already doing, while creating opportunities for honorees to see themselves as potential partners in ongoing prevention work. Because the program is relatively new, we can only report on early results. The first outcome is that all of the honorees are now aware of the Strengthening Families protective factors framework, and two-thirds of them said they are now more aware of the ways in which their work builds strong communities that support families and reduces child abuse and neglect. One honoree said, “Having our work recognized, reinforced that we are on a good path, showed that what we do matters to people beyond ourselves, which spurs us to future action.”

In addition, since we presented the awards at an Essentials for Childhood Summit of public health and child protection professionals, we raised awareness about potential partners whom others may not have considered working with in their communities. Furthermore, we were able to connect awardees with individuals and organizations within the child abuse and neglect prevention community, which allowed us to foster new relationships and partnerships. In a recent survey, 80% of the honorees say they have either already created new partnerships with groups that further strengthen their communities or are developing those partnerships.

The purpose of the Essential Agents of Change Awards is to make connections between people and ideas. It is clear that a positive and strengths-based approach, such as honoring organizations whose outcomes align with the missions of other service entities, can initiate productive and healthy relationships.

MA EfC believes that simply alerting groups to the relationship between their work and child abuse and neglect prevention is not sufficient, and that more effort must go into building relationships to create concrete partnerships. New relationships, new ideas, new framing, all take an effort that need nurturing, as we support adults who seek to help children.

For more details, visit Strengthening Families Protective FactorsMassachusetts Essentials for Childhood Facebook page, and ACEsConnection MA EfC page.