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Building Strong Families

Malcolm Gaines
May 31, 2016

The Prevention Center has learned something important in our more than 40 years of service to families in San Francisco (which recent research confirms): ultimately, families don’t need us to tell them how they are at risk for child abuse or what’s wrong with them. To prevent child abuse, families need us to support and build their strengths: the ways they are already capable of protecting and caring for their children. We call these strengths “Protective Factors.”

In 2001, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) began a two-year study that resulted in the development of a Five Protective Factors model of child abuse prevention, which we use as the basis of the services we provide to children and families. All of the programming is specifically designed to support one or more of the following five factors in families:

Parental Resilience The ability to manage and bounce back from all types of challenges that emerge in family life. It means finding ways to solve problems, building and sustaining trusting relationships, including relationships with their own children, and knowing how to seek help when necessary.
Social Connections Healthy interactions with family friends, family members, neighbors, and community members who provide emotional support, help with problem-solving, offer parenting advice, and give concrete assistance.
Concrete Support in Times of Need Knowledge of how to access adequate services to provide stability, treatment, and help for family members in order to get through a crisis, such as domestic violence, mental illness, or substance abuse.
Knowledge of Parenting
& Child Development
Accurate and useful information about children’s developmental needs, typical behavior, and effective parenting practices helps parents see their children and youth in a positive light and promote their healthy development.
Social & Emotional Competence
of Children
A child’s ability to interact positively with others, to learn to regulate their emotions and behavior, and to effectively communicate their feelings with their family, other adults, and peers.

As family support providers, when we shift our emphasis from “What’s wrong with this family?” to “How can we identify and build up this family’s strengths?” we enable ourselves to really see a family, to engage with them in partnership to maintain safety and promote growth for all its members. The Five Protective Factors give us a framework to engender hope with families whose experiences with trauma, poverty, and other adversity would otherwise leave them hopeless. Families who engage with us in this work receive specific support designed to build up their protective factors: family events and support groups build social connections, parenting classes build knowledge of parenting and child development, psychotherapy builds resilience against trauma, and our children’s playroom builds kids’ social and emotional competence, to name just a few of our services.

In addition to being a strength-based approach, The Five Protective Factors is also a true “Two-Generation” model: it provides a way for us to hold ourselves accountable to both parents and children in a family at the same time, which is the gold standard for social services. A summary of our approach, as well as examples of other Two-Generation approaches to solving social problems, is included in the Ascend Fellowship’s Two Generations, One Future: An Anthology from the Ascend Fellowship (see

At the Prevention Center, the Five Protective Factors model isn’t just a superficial label or the latest social services fad. Our relationship with every single family who comes to us is infused with these factors, and all our practitioners work every day to strengthen them, because we know that in doing so, we are promoting the strengths that allow families to keep kids safe, regardless of the challenges they face.

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