Media outlets can help respond to crisis and prevent child maltreatment.

Media coverage plays an important part in strengthening families and protecting children in Colorado. Recent news coverage of a new mom who left the hospital with her infant, believed to be endangered, brings to light the way families and substance use are often discussed in the media. Thankfully, the  baby has been located and is safe, which was the ultimate goal when authorities issued a statewide alert Monday evening. However, the unintended consequence of reporting news as it happens, and the subsequent social media engagement, can discourage families from getting the support that they need. 

Here are three ways media outlets can help respond and prevent child maltreatment: 

One- Use person-centered language.

All too often, parents are shamed for their substance use disorders by the words the media uses reporting the facts, at a time when support is most needed. We know that the deep stigma associated with addiction is what frequently prevents parents from seeking the supports that they need. Along with this stigma comes fear of systems, including law enforcement, child welfare and even health care.  When this fear and shame are present, parents can feel unable to access the services that they need to strengthen their families.

While many types of substance use are stigmatized, women who are pregnant and have substance use disorders face particular scrutiny. Although we know that both pregnancy and the postpartum period are times of increased motivation to stop using substances, fear can prevent women from seeking the care and treatment they need.  Unfortunately, this can lead to serious physical and mental health consequences for women--with accidental drug overdose the number one cause of death among new Colorado moms and pregnant women (Metz et al. (2016). Maternal deaths from suicide and overdose in Colorado, 2004-2012. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 128(6), 1233-1240.) Evidence shows that children have a better chance of thriving when their parents, and mothers, have the supports they need. 

Knowing all of this, one of the first things we can do to support families is to make them feel strong, resilient and valued. A concrete way everyone, including the media, can do this is by using person-first language. This means that when we talk about someone with a substance use disorder, we center them first as person.  

Using phrases like “drug user” and “addict” serve to dehumanize people who have substance use disorders, and can make someone with a substance use disorder feel judged and devalued. Instead, using phrases like “a person impacted by substance use” or “someone with a substance use disorder” first and foremost elevates that they are a valued community member just like anyone else. Words matter. We know that this shift in language can have a positive measurable impact on families and community support for programs supporting children and families.  

Two - Paint a complete picture of child welfare services and the role other people can plan in supporting families.  

Facts are often limited as news breaks, however, providing an incomplete picture about the relatively unknown support that comes along with involvement with local child welfare services can fuel preconceived ideas for all parents and the community about what happens after you call to report concerns about the well-being of a child to the police or local county social services. 

Talking to advocacy organizations or nonprofits working directly with families can provide greater context for the systems working to strengthen families in the community. Describing practices and services available to support families and the role individuals, neighbors and community can play in prevention as the story evolves helps complete that picture. 

Three - It’s a good opportunity for a public service announcement. 

Highlighting resources that strengthen families can also paint a more complete picture. There are a number of statewide resources that exist for supporting women and families impacted by substance use.  

Reminding the public of the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Hotline 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1‑844‑264‑5437) is important. Everyone plays a role in preventing child abuse and neglect. Caseworkers and social workers are helping strengthen families and protect children, but they need your help to make that call.

The Colorado Crisis Services Hotline (1-844-493-8255) has crisis counselors available 24 hours a day and can refer people to a variety of resources in times of need, including substance use disorder treatment providers. Specifically for pregnant women and new moms, Mother’s Connection also has resources available on substance use disorder treatment.  

Many of us know someone who is impacted by substance use--let’s start to talk about it in a way that reflects how truly human the issue is.

Co-Authors: 

Hattie Landry, Illuminate Colorado Strategic Initiatives Manager 
Katie Facchinello, Illuminate Colorado Director of Communications