03/12/2013 10:09 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Why Children's Centres Are Critical to Ending Child Abuse

Children's Centres are Britain's institutional expression of our commitment to better childhoods. Established over a decade ago they are the spaces where a wide range of health, early education and specialist support services are brought together under one roof (or at least within a 'hub') so that parents with young children do not have to go from pillar to post navigating services for themselves.

As such, they have become the repository for all our hopes for children. We look to Children's Centres to perform a range of small miracles, whether it is improving children's language skills, building their health and resilience, shaping their emotional development or sparking their appetite for learning.

Rarely, though, do we consider the role of the Children's Centres in preventing abuse and neglect.

Was Daniel Pelka known to his local Children's Centre, or Keanu Williams, Hamzah Khan? We pay little attention to the role of the Children's Centre in preventing child maltreatment.

And yet Children's Centres arguably hold the key - or at least a big chunk of it - to preventing abuse. By supporting families through the transition to parenthood and during the early years, Children's Centres are among the most important pieces of weaponry in the fight against child abuse.

Some of the most tried and tested programmes for influencing parenting behaviour, and therefore children's development, such as the Incredible Years, Triple P, Strengthening Families, Mellow Parenting, Family Nurse Partnerships and the Oxford Parent Infant Project, are already being delivered within (or in partnership with) Children's Centres.

And research studies point to the value of this approach in terms of preventing abuse. Evaluation studies have found that Children's Centres are effective in influencing parenting style, and that this leads to parents using less harsh discipline, the kind of shift in behaviour that reduces the risk of abuse.

Yet, as a recent NCB report argues, all this is in jeopardy. The contribution of Children's Centres to preventing child abuse is in decline. Spending cuts threaten their existence although, despite many closures, the vast majority have stayed open. Much more concerning is the terrible 'hollowing out' of Children's Centres - the stripping away of the range and depth of services - that is rapidly reducing their ability to transform children's lives.

There is an urgent need to address the fact that many Children's Centres are being allowed to wither on the vine to the point where their impact on children is questionable. Some belt tightening is inevitable in the current economic climate. But rather than deplete them by restricting services to certain populations or reducing the number of Centres, it would be better to prioritise support during pregnancy and early infancy, when the foundations for parenting and children's development are laid.

Too often Children's Centres are trying to do too much, with too little, resulting in very limited impact.

At the same time Children's Centres also need to consolidate provision based on what works. An obvious place to start is to question why, according to the National Centre for Social Research, 12 per cent of those in the most disadvantaged areas offer no evidence-based programmes at all.

But a strong focus on what works should not only rely on adopting tried and tested programmes. A prerequisite to localism is that local authorities are held accountable to outcomes. And yet many Children's Centres are failing to assess their impact on children's development. The use of data is poor. Most do not have a comprehensive picture of the level and nature of need in their area. And measurement of impact is patchy. This must be fixed.

Finally, the vision for Children Centres will never be fully realised until there is better integration of resources. The level of public spending on families with children under five remains considerable, even in these cash-strapped times.

Rather than providing services additional to those of midwives, health visitors, speech and language therapists, social workers, early education, drug and alcohol services, domestic violence services, mental health provision and others, Children's Centres could harness the collective efforts of a vast array of services and pool resources and expertise to transform children's life chances.

In doing so, they could play a far more important role in preventing child abuse.