BH TIG Week: When Promising and Best Practices are All We Have: Child Abuse Prevention in Schools by Marian Bussey

Hello, I’m Marian Bussey, LCSW, PhD., Associate Professor Emerita in the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver, and a mostly-retired evaluator for a small foundation that supports school-based child sexual abuse prevention. Technically, my title is Academic Consultant, and each of the three agencies we’ve funded over the past several years does its own evaluation, which I monitor.

Being retired, I have time to observe the programs live, watching presenters and children tackle the tough subject of child abuse. Even child advocates may at first think: Are we scaring the children, destroying their innocence? Shouldn’t the adults protect them? Five years and 15 presentations later, I can say that the children, grades K-8, take the information in stride. They know bad things happen; they are hungry to know how to resist it and how to help others as a helpful bystander. Further, the programs are not ad hoc; they are designed by children’s advocacy centers or sexual assault experts. Yet none of the programs are evidence-based in the sense of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for two primary reasons: 1) evaluation overload for school districts; and, more crucially, 2) the difficulty of obtaining outcome on abuse rates.

Lesson Learned: It is much easier to do RCTs for a social problem whose outcomes can be measured – like bullying and substance abuse. But the only (old!) RCTs involving child abuse prevention confine themselves to measuring children’s change in knowledge, and sometimes in protective skills, pre and post intervention. The three programs we fund do that kind of evaluation, and while no one has systematically surveyed school administrators, principals keep asking the programs back each year; but the programs I’ve observed – Bringing in the Bystander, Safe from the Start (modified from the Committee for Children’s Second Step), and Child Assault Prevention – are listed only as Promising or Best Practice (by Colorado’s School Safety Resource Center).

I’ve tried to interest my state legislators in funding these programs, and they want a quick assurance that these programs are evidence-based. There is evidence that they work to increase knowledge and that they have resulted in substantiated cases of child abuse revealed just after the program. There is also evidence from one retrospective study of female college students that the programs may reduce rates of sexual assault; Laura Gibson and Harold Leitenberg (2000) in Child Abuse & Neglect found that students who reported learning this kind of prevention were half as likely to report a history of sexual assault. While everyone agrees child sexual and physical abuse are terrible, the funding to carry out RCTs looking at the ultimate outcome of reducing child abuse is not there. It would take a federal or state project, with cooperation by both school districts and departments of child welfare, but this is unlikely. From what I have seen and read, in this case, Promising and Best Practices will suffice until we fund more rigorous inquiries. One legislator asked if I would benefit from increased funding – no, but I believe children would.


The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Behavioral Health (BH) TIG Week with our colleagues in Behavioral Health Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our BH TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

4 thoughts on “BH TIG Week: When Promising and Best Practices are All We Have: Child Abuse Prevention in Schools by Marian Bussey”

  1. I am in agreement with your view and would love to see programs in school that assist children with the resources, tools, and awareness to prevent and stop child abuse. I remember anti-drug programs such as D.A.R.E and sex education programs that promote abstinence being utilized in school districts everywhere, back in the early 90s. While school districts in Virginia and other states are now incorporating programs that assist with mental health, I don’t understand the hesitation to also include child abuse prevention. I have not researched in in great detail, but I wonder if anonymous surveys can be gathered from all children within a selected state or district, inquiring a few simple questions like “Do you feel safe at home?” and can be used as supportive evidence for the need for further investigation? Maybe this could help open the door to providing this program?

  2. Catalina R Devarona

    Hello Marian,
    I find your program to be very intriguing and supportive to children. Especially now, the general public is learning how important it is for children to understand what inappropriate behavior is (especially regarding adults) and the valid terms for their bodies. I find it interesting that you stated that children would come forward with their stories of abuse after participating in these programs. This highlights that students are not being frightened by these presentations but rather being empowered by them. Thank you for your insights, and I hope these programs are still going strong in your area!

  3. This shows why evaluators are needed for evidence and a better understanding of the situation. This blog article hit home for me because I was a victim of sexual assault when I was a child. I was only six, but from that moment on I learned a lot to protect myself. I learned bad things happen, but you can make a difference when you have the knowledge to protect yourself. I find this post very logical with a lot of good points.

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