In the United States, two approaches have developed to exercise collective influence on how parents raise their children. One is mandatory public intervention in families who have placed their children at risk, exemplified by the child welfare system. The other is voluntary offers of assistance, for example, child abuse prevention services that place responsibility on parents to determine whether they'll accept the advice they receive and change their behavior.
In this article, Deborah Daro traces a shift in emphasis from a Progressive-Era policy that offered common supports to all new parents to a more bifurcated prevention system that emphasizes public investments primarily for those parents and children at highest risk. Moreover, she writes, for the past 50 years, voluntary and mandatory parental assistance have operated independently, with minimal shared agenda setting and planning. She contrasts this to the health care system, where early assessment and diagnosis mean that people receive a continuum of care, based on their level of need. Early medical treatment isn't viewed as intrusive; it's seen as an important first step in protecting health and avoiding more complex and costly therapy.
Unfortunately, Daro argues, the policy response to parental shortcomings isn't comparable. There's no adequate early assessment when people become parents, and child welfare agencies typically offer assistance only after a child is harmed. She suggests that the time is right for a universal approach that reaches out to all new parents, offering each family a level of assistance commensurate with their needs. Ideally, she writes, "Seeking out and accepting formal public services to help meet parenting demands should be as acceptable as using preventive health care."