National Child Abuse Prevention Month: How School-Based Services Can Help Build a Safer World for Kids

How do we effectively prevent child abuse in our communities?

Who should be involved in child abuse prevention efforts, and where do we start?

At Cornerstones of Care, our dedicated team members work with hundreds of children and families in Kansas and Missouri to provide trauma-informed services focused on healing and building resilience for the future. Many of these services are preventative in nature and focus on addressing underlying problems, such as truancy and abuse, in the school or home setting. 

“Hospitals and schools are the number one source of hotline referrals for abuse,” said Julie Plunkett, Clinical Manager for school-based services in Kansas City. “We’re getting in at one of those catch points for hotlines for abuse. Hopefully, we can help head some of that off before it worsens and be a natural support for those families.”

Julie’s team is based in western Missouri and focuses on therapy and wrap-around case management services for preschool through middle school-aged children and support services for adults. In St. Louis, Laura Nolan also leads a team of therapists that provide school-based services.

On this National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we take an inside look at our school-based services and how strategic partnerships and preventative actions can build a safer world for our kids. To do this, we look at three key building blocks that make this work most effective and help to prevent child abuse in our communities: Access, Early Intervention, and Partnership.


When it comes to reducing hotline referrals and cases of child abuse, the first important step is ensuring that teachers, administrators, and families know about services that are available to them.

For Julie’s program, this starts with ensuring that critical roles are filled to meet service demand and communicate with constituents regularly.

Since August 2022, team members working in the program have seen a significant increase in applicants and have filled seven job openings, boosted by an agency-wide salary increase earlier this year. One of those recently-filled positions is a part-time bilingual specialist for the Grandview School District who can work with parents who don’t speak English. 

“Now, I have a dream team,” said Julie, reflecting on the challenges of working understaffed and the exciting developments ahead. “There is a lot of collaboration, innovation, support, and vision on this team.” 

Many of the school-based therapists and case managers help close the gap in accessibility to services by meeting with children and families at schools, which keeps the services in the community and cuts down on commute time for families. They can also offer virtual appointments or even provide therapeutic sessions in the home.

“What we’re doing would otherwise be inaccessible to many of these families,” said Eliza Harrison, an Elementary Therapist in the Grandview School District. “In the same way we partner with schools, we have to partner with the families, too.”

Improving access to school-based services also means intentionally decreasing the wait time from when a referral is made by a caregiver, counselor, or social worker to when a family or student can get help. 

In 2022, Laura Nolan’s St. Louis team, through collaboration and partnership, reduced wait time from 175 days to 54. The increase in referrals allowed the team to add a position on the team. In 2023, the goal is to reduce the wait time to 30 days and explore more ways of increasing accessibility.


Another essential building block for reducing the prevalence of child abuse is to create processes that allow for early intervention with children and families to prevent abuse and allow for healing and growth moving forward.

One of those processes is regular wellness screenings that assess a child’s social-emotional health and help caretakers recognize when additional assessments or services are appropriate.

There are many signs and symptoms of child abuse that may signify to teachers, therapists, and other caretakers that a child needs additional support.

Children who are abused and neglected may have physical injuries and emotional and psychological problems that show up in the classroom. Child abuse and neglect can affect how children relate to their peers and how they perform academically. Sexually abused children tend to perform lower on tests, have higher absentee rates, and are more likely to drop out of school.

Following a recent incident at Grandview, the school was ready to call the hotline for suspected child abuse when Abigail stepped in.

“She was able to educate the school, work with them, and say, ‘If we put these services in place, rather than penalizing the parent, let’s hold off on hotlining and see if we can support this parent and get some engagement,’” said Julie.

During that time, Abigail provided case management services and worked with the family on goal-setting and skill-building.

“There are still some struggles and barriers that we’re working with,” said Abby, “but we were able to avoid a hotline and are now working with that family to get a family therapy referral sent in. The kiddo is doing well and making progress and is happy, which is all we can really ask for.”


When Joyce Adams joined the Cornerstones of Care team as a therapist eight years ago, she noticed that many schools relied on punitive actions in response to challenging behaviors in the classroom. Often those standard punishment actions resulted in an unintended escalation in behaviors.

By training teachers in the Conscious Discipline Model and working one-on-one with children with challenging behaviors, Joyce and other team members offer a new way of approaching discipline.

“It is an adult first model,” said Joyce. “Many times, in working with the children, it’s looking at behaviors in a different way. Behaviors are trying to give us information about what’s going on with the child.”

Joyce and the team will look for skill deficits and try to identify what’s behind those challenging behaviors. A healthy partnership with schools is an essential piece of this work.

Joyce recalls working with a preschooler at risk of expulsion. By partnering with the teacher to help work through strategies with the child, Joyce was able to help the child avoid being expelled and make dramatic improvements before starting kindergarten.

“He left and went to kindergarten with a teacher that didn’t know his history,” said Joyce. “She said he was one of the most dynamic leaders in that classroom. That’s really what we want to do – is help those kids and families be successful.”

From Kansas City to St. Louis and beyond

The popularity of school-based services like those offered by Cornerstones of Care in Kansas City and St. Louis is growing, and more districts are pursuing contracts for schools to access social and behavioral health services.

In Kansas City, Center School District recently expanded its contract to include therapeutic services and wrap-around support to four elementary schools. On the other side of the state, the St. Louis team is also expanding its work, thanks to the Children Services Fund grant.

“We will add two more therapists for two new school districts in St. Louis County,” said Laura. “They will be meeting with students who are suspended and helping them get back to a place where they are able to learn.”

Partnership is key to success in St. Louis. Growing communication and collaboration efforts have led to the blossoming of therapeutic services for several school districts. Through the Children Services Fund grant, the team has expanded services with BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team) through mental health and skill-building techniques for self-regulation. This approach follows principles of social learning, non-violence, open communication, emotional intelligence, social responsibility, and safety.    

“We are adding to the goal of more school integration,” said Laura. “Cornerstones of Care would like to be invited to attend school-team meetings for mutual students/clients to offer suggestions for supporting students during the school day. We would like to continue to bridge the relationship of caregiver involvement with therapy and the school.”

This expansion of school-based social and behavioral health services will help schools and families spot the warning signs of abuse earlier and be an essential first step in effectively reducing child abuse and neglect in our communities.