Scientific research has firmly established that early childhood experiences can have a tremendous impact on our lifelong well-being. When infants are exposed to chronic stress or trauma, the effect can be toxic, stunting brain growth and changing the trajectories of their lives. On the other hand, giving babies the care and attention they need provides a strong foundation for future development.
In this issue of Child Welfare Watch, we look at the science of early childhood development—and we illuminate how supportive, nurturing caregivers can buffer children from the negative impacts of early adversity, including the ambient stress that so often accompanies intractable poverty.
Some of the effective strategies to counter the negative impacts of early childhood adversity include ‘dyadic’ therapies that work with toddlers and parents together, aiding children by supporting their relationships with their caregivers. Despite the evidence that these interventions can prevent a host of future problems, they remain underfunded and rare in New York City, where triage continues to trump prevention. A violent teenager is more likely to win policymakers’ attention than a toddler who has trouble sleeping after witnessing his father’s murder. A mother struggling to care for her small child in an overcrowded apartment is more likely to be the subject of an investigation by government’s child protective services than to experience dyadic therapy at a neighborhood clinic.
This issue of the Watch also takes a look at the experience of infants and toddlers in foster care, and at new efforts to strengthen their development. The Watch asks the question: Are these children getting what they need?
Our findings include:
- Studies have shown that elements common to poverty, such as overcrowding and family turmoil, can cause babies’ stress levels to spike precipitously—but the impact is mitigated when a baby’s mother is particularly responsive to her child’s signals. (See “The Science of Trauma.”)
- National studies have found that 20 to 60 percent of foster children under age 5 have significant developmental delays, and that 25 to 40 percent display serious behavioral problems. Foster care agencies do not regularly screen for mental health impairments in very young children. (See “Babies in Foster Care.”)
- In New York City, only a handful of programs and clinics engage the parent as a partner in a small child’s therapy. There is very little city or state funding for these programs. (See“Baby Watchers.”)
- Putting mental health professionals where parents already are makes services easier for families to use. (See “How to Reach the City’s Youngest.”)
The Watch also offers a set of policy recommendations and solutions informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers support the wellbeing of the city’s most vulnerable infants and toddlers. These include:
- The New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should provide consistent, adequate funding for early childhood mental health treatment, and for professional training.
- The city, state, and nonprofit organizations should co-locate infant and toddler mental health services in the places where young children and their parents already go: pediatric clinics, foster care and preventive agencies, family court, homes, community centers and child care programs.
- The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) should require foster care agencies to ensure that babies and toddlers in foster care are screened for mental health impairments, in addition to standard developmental evaluations.
- ACS and the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) should routinely train frontline staff and contract employees on the developmental needs of infants and very young children.
- ACS and nonprofit family support organizations should ensure that parenting classes engage in active skill building, supporting parents to understand and nurture their children’s development.
The Child Welfare Watch project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Child Welfare Fund, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation and the Sirus Fund.