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90by30: Can it be done?

As far as counties go, Lane County, Oregon is big. Roughly the size of Connecticut, 355,000 people call it home. Like any other county, it has its share of problems. Poverty. Drugs. Crime. Its approach to most social problems is the same as anywhere else: deal with it as best you can with the resources you have. But study after study has shown that adolescent and adults who struggle with depression, drug abuse and alcoholism are far more likely than others to have been abused or neglected as children. If that’s true, then it stands to reason that a concerted effort to reduce abuse and neglect could turn a reactive approach into a proactive one. Oregon had nearly 72,000 reported cases of abuse and neglect in 2010;  how many of those kids will one day end up depressed, addicted, or worse? The data suggests a lot of them will, and that’s what Jeff Todahl (pictured), associate professor in the COE’s Couples and Family Therapy Program (CFT), wants to change with 90by30, an ambitious effort to reduce instances of abuse and neglect in Lane County 90 percent by 2030.

The administrative backbone of 90by30 is the newly created Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect, of which Todahl is the guiding force. But the theoretical framework was the result of a collaborative effort between him, Megan Schultz, director of CASA of Lane County, Alicia Hays, director of health and human services for Lane County. During the COE’s Next 100 Years activities in early 2011, they brought together a panel to project themselves into the future: It’s 2030, and since 2011 we’ve achieved a 90 percent reduction in child maltreatment in Lane County. How did we do it? What were the first steps? What role did the University of Oregon play?

Upwards of 225 Lane County residents listened to the answers, all of which served to underscore three truths:

  1. No one, anywhere, is looking at this issue with an eye toward developing an evidence-based, well-coordinated and sustainable prevention plan across a U.S. county.
  2. People in Lane County care about this issue, see the value in addressing it, and realize that they have a role to play in doing so.
  3. If those people invested themselves in this, with the proper guidance and resources, it could actually work.

Todahl says the impetus for that initial discussion with Schultz and Hays, who certainly have a pulse on the overtaxed social-service structure of Lane County, was the realization of a fourth and more depressing truth: That despite millions of dollars and more than 30 years of working directly with children and families on early-intervention strategies, rates of child abuse and neglect in the county had risen steadily.

“There have been plenty of success stories with traditional early intervention over the years, but they haven’t been enough to change the big picture,” Todahl says. “That was a hard realization, but it’s also helped illuminate a path forward. The support for a new approach has been very energizing for many members of our local community.”

Support for 90by30 will have to take two distinct forms if it is to succeed: Financial and functional. To date, about $125,000 has been raised by Todahl and Phyllis Barkhurst, director of the 90by30 Initiative – including a seed gift from the Roseburg-based Ford Family Foundation. Most of that, along with future contributions, will go toward engagement,  education efforts, prevention programming and social marketing within the Lane County community, along with developing an infrastructure that jives with 90by30’s strategic objectives. Among those objectives is the establishment of six regional leadership teams to focus the broader efforts on specific parts of Lane County. Eventually they hope to prove themselves worthy of federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), private funding from private entities like the Ann E. Casey and Kellogg foundations, and individual donors.

"I spent decades in the very important work of supporting trauma survivors after the fact," says Barkhurst. "At the same time, I never saw a decrease, let alone an end in sight to the sheer number of children, youth or adults impacted by abuse. This is what 90by30 looks to change; we are going to decrease the actual incidence of harm. We know so much now about how to actually prevent child abuse and neglect; I am excited to be working to implement evidence-based strategies here in Lane County. Children will benefit, youth will benefit, families will benefit, we all will benefit."

Giving structure to their efforts is Collective Impact, a framework based on the idea that lasting and significant social change can only result through a well-coordinated and mutually reinforcing plan with measurable results. The framework is a good fit for 90by30 which, if it’s going to work, must strengthen neighborhood ties to the extent that it becomes unconscionable for anyone to turn a blind eye to the maltreatment of children. And, more importantly, that we each feel more confident in our ability to support our neighbors who are dealing with the many stressors associated with raising children.

“Currently, we largely lean on government and social service systems to deal with child abuse and neglect. This status quo approach, though positive in some regards, will not change the long-term rates of child abuse and neglect. A new approach is needed – one that identifies and urges a role for every member of Lane County. We are much more likely to reduce child abuse and neglect in our community by changing the factors that allow it to occur in the first place, by more thoughtfully applying prevention and public health strategies that have proven effectiveness, and by creating a Lane county-specific plan developed with our Lane County neighbors,” Todahl says.

The COE’s newly established Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect, directed by Todahl, will act as the hub for the 90by30 Initiative. The Center will provide organization and infrastructure support and university resources, and will serve as the primary research and measurement arm of the Initiative.

If 90by30’s approach proves effective, the hope is that it can become a model for others to follow. By replicating its methods elsewhere, it’s possible that the estimated $103.8 billion (Wang & Holton, 2007) annual cost of abuse and neglect in the United States could be drastically reduced. That would come in the form of reduced law-enforcement and social-services costs, fewer incidences of depression and suicide, less drug abuse and myriad other savings. Of course, the real focus is less about resources and more about building happier, healthier and more accountable communities.