Matthew Wood, March 5, 2017

In her nearly two decades of work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?s School of Social Work, Kristen Slack has dedicated her energy to uncovering the roots of poverty and finding solutions for those who need it most, particularly those who are the victims of child neglect.

Slack helped found the Center on Child Welfare Policy and Practice and her most recent findings were published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.

She sat down with BTN LiveBIG to talk about her work and the effects poverty and neglect can have on society as a whole.


BTN LiveBIG: You?ve been doing research on child development and social work for a while. What got you interested in this field and where did you get your start?

KS: I first became interested in the topic of child maltreatment in the mid-?90s when I was a grad student at the University of Chicago. At the federal level we were debating welfare reform policy. I was looking for research topics for my dissertation and I got really interested in the debates. It got me thinking about how some policy changes might affect social services. I thought about child welfare. I wondered whether some of the changes might affect rates of child maltreatment. Through that work and all the subsequent work I?ve done over the years, I?ve sort of stayed on the topic of what poverty and economic stress would play on child maltreatment.


BTN LiveBIG: Your recent studies delve more into the causes of poverty and maltreatment in children. What specifically did you find?

KS: I have done a lot of work over the years trying to understand the relationships between poverty and other factors. I want to make sure that I?m not saying that the most people who are in poverty maltreat their children. Only a fraction of them maltreat. It occurs across the income span. But when you experience poverty, you are at a greater risk. There are many reasons. One may be simply lacking resources, not enough food or safe shelter. Another is stress. And that has long been known as a risk for maltreatment. And another is when experiencing poverty, others might notice their behaviors and report them. That?s something called surveillance bias. People look at them and make erroneous judgements. Or there are more opportunities for them to be observed and noticed.


BTN LiveBIG: So how do we sort it out?

KS: What we?ve been trying to do with this journal issue is try to go beyond just correlational understanding of these relationships and find out if poverty and maltreatment have a causal role. There are indeed findings from this collection of studies that support a causal explanation for economic stress for maltreatment. And also the flip for that, when families are provided support, it makes them less likely.

But income and poverty are not the only things that matter. The question becomes, from which subgroup is poverty the most important risk factor. How much child maltreatment could we prevent if we just address these factors? It?s clear from these studies that the provision of economic support seems to have an effect. And that?s really important because it makes us think about our country?s economic safety net in a different way. We haven?t thought about it as prevention tool. And we should be thinking about it that way.


BTN LiveBIG: What approach should we take when dealing with these issues?

KS: When we think about our welfare system, or our economic safety net, that includes SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) or Medicaid. All of those things are designed to help families move out of poverty. But we?ve never really thought about those programs as child maltreatment prevention tools. That?s an important point that comes out of this issue.


BTN LiveBIG: What is the difference?

KS: Maltreatment is a very complex phenomenon. There is no one cause that applies to everybody. For me the question is how we can get better about understanding the constellation of needs each family has. And how much economic support do they need? Research has shown it doesn?t take much economic support to help families get out of maltreatment. Just a few hundred dollars a year can help

When people think about maltreatment, they often just think about bad parenting. What we hope to drive home with this special issue is there are factors that parents have little or no control over. Like economic climate. Loss of a job because a plant closed. Sometimes parents don?t have control over these. Sometimes it?s not just about being a bad parent. We seem to be focused on trying to change that parent instead of educating them on child development or changing parenting behaviors. I think more of our prevention programs need to expand to deal with a systemic approach to economic issues.


BTN LiveBIG: What do you see in the political landscape that can affect this problem?

KS: One thing I?ve been very disappointed about in [this] election cycle is none of candidates made child maltreatment prevention an issue. I think it?s a root cause of a lot of our social problems. When you have a history of child maltreatment and other types of adversities, you?re more likely to be unemployed, suffer from health problems, lower levels of education. It resounds throughout your life. It can be found in the history of a lot of adults that are experiencing a number of these social problems. And yet, we don?t talk about it at the federal or state level.

Because that prevention at childhood may not become evident until later, the patience of our electorate and need to show immediate results causes them to ignore it. I think we could see this with a lot of our social problems.


BTN LiveBIG: How has Wisconsin helped with your research?

KS: It?s been a terrific place to study this research topic. Part of it is because of the relationships with state government and with non-profit organizations around the state. It?s relatively unique to have a university setting that facilitates the relationships for faculty. I?ve found that conducting research here has been really critical because we?re able to deal with the people who can facilitate these relationships between faculty and local government.