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A Project Years in the Making: Early Childhood and Child Welfare Working Together to Reach The Most Vulnerable Children In Time

March 5, 2021

This blog describes the urgent need for early childhood and child welfare to join forces to support vulnerable children and outlines the goals of a BUILD project to create a strategy to develop and enhance the collaboration between the child welfare and early childhood systems to improve outcomes for young children and their families.

My work centers on children who have been abused, neglected, and traumatized. I have worked in both the child welfare and early childhood systems and have long thought the two should join forces on behalf of these children. But getting the two systems to work collaboratively has always been challenging as they work from different perspectives and often have diverging aims. Child welfare systems are frequently understaffed, and case workers have caseloads composed of variously aged children and differing family conditions that have come to the attention of the child welfare system. Because of the severity of the conditions in which families are often living, children’s lives can be at risk. In a very real sense, child welfare staff have a great sense of urgency about their work, and early childhood’s aim of kindergarten readiness may not seem as pressing.

Too Young to Die

For me, the degree to which systems do not collaborate in the best interest of children was never more stark than in 2014, when Laquan McDonald died a violent death at the age of 17. His murder cemented in my mind the life and death consequences of failed systems. Shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer, Laquan, a Black male, had been up against long odds from the start of his life. Born to a 14-year-old mother with a substance abuse issue, he was, according to a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, “a second-generation ward of the state as a toddler, had learning disabilities, and was diagnosed with complex mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. He had school suspensions, expulsions, truancies and drug possession arrests, was in and out of juvenile detention, and twice was placed in foster homes where he said he was beaten and sexually abused.” Yet no one had connected his behavior to his biography.

As we looked at the case after his death, it quickly became clear that people and systems had failed him time after time. It was also clear that this child, who died at the hands of the police, was on a trajectory toward a negative outcome from the time he became known to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at the age of three. Certainly, systems that were designed to protect him and support his development do not have responsibility for police brutality. However, it is possible, that had we effectively intervened early on, his trajectory and outcome may have been completely different. We hear all the time that the point of early childhood work is to change the life trajectory of children so that they have a fair and optimal chance. This is such a powerful and poignant example of why working toward that potentiality is critical.

The Dire Need to Combine Forces

About 40 percent of the 180,000 children entering foster care are newborn to age 5. And a disproportionate number of them are children of color (White children make up 51.9 percent of the population and 43.4 percent of the foster care population, while African American children make up 13.8 percent of the population, but 24 percent of children in foster care).

The potential for outcomes like Laquan’s is never far from my mind. We all know about the science that has revealed the damaging effects of neglect and abuse on the developing brain. We also know that early childhood programs, services, and interventions mediate the effects of less-than-optimal conditions and have long-term benefits for our most vulnerable children. I am not suggesting that a partnership between early childhood and child welfare will prevent all negative outcomes for young people. But I am saying that there are children who have come to our attention whose lives can be changed if we start soon enough. That is my big motivation.

What Can Early Childhood Programs and Services Do to Change a Child’s Trajectory?

Certain home visiting models have been shown to decrease child welfare involvement. Developmental screenings can identify developmental delays, learning difficulties, and trauma symptoms in children prior to age three. Early Intervention can remediate developmental delays and address early learning issues. Dyadic therapies, such as Child-Parent Psychotherapy, can reduce the effects of trauma in very young children. Trauma-trained child care providers can respond to young children’s challenging behaviors without suspension or expulsion. Early childhood consultants can work with case workers to provide a more developmentally focused, trauma-informed practice. Evidence-based strategies such as the Pyramid Model can support preschool and Head Start teachers and child care staff in promoting healthy social-emotional development. Strategies such as the Pregnant and Parenting Women with Opioid Use Disorder can identify infants and toddlers at risk due to maternal substance use disorders.

Goals of the Project

With BUILD’s focus on cross-systems collaboration and targeted universalism, I am thrilled to now put a concerted effort into overseeing the creation of a strategy to develop and enhance collaboration between the child welfare and early childhood systems to improve outcomes for young children and their families. The goals of this work are to:

  1. Enable states to develop and implement state and community level cross-systems strategies that focus on young children 0-5 and their families who have come to the attention of the child welfare system due to allegations of abuse or neglect (this would include those families who have kept their children in their homes with supports, and those families whose children who have been place in foster care).
  2. Provide information, consultation, and peer-learning opportunities to states in development of their Families First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) plans to include early childhood systems and services.
  3. Provide information, consultation, and peer-learning opportunities to states in developing and implementing cross-systems strategies in their Pre-School Development Grants (PDG).

Cross-Systems, Family-focused Issues States will Consider

BUILD will work with state leaders to answer these and other questions:

  • Home Visiting:  How can states’ child welfare and home visiting systems work collaboratively to ensure that families of children prenatal to age two are engaged and enrolled in racially and culturally responsive evidence-based home visiting programs that are appropriate for families involved in or at risk of involvement in child welfare systems?
  • Early Intervention:  How can states’ developmental screening and early intervention service systems better identify and provide early intervention services to families and children who are child-welfare involved?
    Child Care:  How can states’ child care providers increase their capacity to be inclusive of and responsive to young children whose families are child-welfare involved?
  • Health Care:  What systems are in place, and can be put in place, to assure that pregnant moms and young children receive the health care that they need when moms and children are child-welfare involved?
  • Family First Prevention Services Act:  What sub-populations of children and families involved in child welfare have been identified for FFPSA that are eligible for or are already collaborating with early childhood systems and services?
  • PDG B-5 Grants:  What cross-systems collaborations between early childhood systems and services and child welfare services have states built into their PDGB-5 grants?

Let’s Provide Support Where and When it is Most Needed

Healthy child development and learning are critical to ensuring kindergarten readiness. But that goal needs to be just one part of a broader, whole-child focus, one that includes support for our most vulnerable children. We can commit to all young children while ensuring that the most vulnerable among them get the particular attention they need. This project will get us closer to realizing that commitment.

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