A classic public health parable goes like this: a family is fishing downstream in a river, and suddenly a drowning person comes floating by. They pull the person out of the water, but then another drowning person comes by. As they are pulling that person out of the water, another comes by. The family then stops and asks, what is happening? They walk upstream, and they see that there is a cliff with a beautiful view of the river. But there is no fence, and people get distracted with the view and fall down. The family decides to stop people from falling by working with the community to build a fence.
For Amanda Barczyk (PhD ’11), this public health parable captures the holistic thinking that she learned at the School of Social Work: sometimes we need to look beyond the individual level (each drowning person) to take a larger view and identify and minimize risk factors (the cliff) and strengthen protective factors (the fence).
As associate director of research at Dell’s Children Trauma and Injury Research Center, Barczyk and her colleagues are “thinking upstream” to stop child maltreatment in Travis County before it occurs. To inform prevention programming, the center’s research team has mined Child Protective Services data on substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect between 2003 and 2012. They helped visualize the results with maps that depict the county areas most affected, changes over time, and distribution of services.
The research shows that child maltreatment in Travis County follows an “East Austin Crescent Pattern.” This pattern corresponds with risk factors at the community level that include poverty, lack of educational opportunity, community violence, family violence, and student obesity.
“Parents living the stress of poverty and lack of opportunity are more likely to commit child abuse,” says Karla Lawson, the research center’s director. “We can mitigate some of these stressors by bringing opportunity to areas of Travis County with higher rates of child maltreatment. Improving affordable housing, transportation, employment, mental health and addiction services—these things can actually protect children from abuse and neglect.”
When the researchers mapped mental health and substance-use services, however, they found that they are inequitably distributed: services are primarily located west of Interstate 35, while the areas at highest risk for child maltreatment are located east of the interstate.
“Our final goal is to mobilize already existing community groups, resources, and leaders towards preventive actions,” says Barczyk. “Child maltreatment crosses many sectors—housing, schools, law enforcement, healthcare, and so on—and to prevent it we need a coordinated, community-wide effort.”