Monthly Archives: April 2011

Maltreatment of Our Youngest Children

For those of us concerned about children, April is a somber month. It’s when we observe National Child Abuse Prevention Month and recommit ourselves to preventing the physical and emotional injuries that are associated with the maltreatment of children.

While all child abuse and neglect is disturbing, it is particularly distressing to learn of maltreatment among very young children given their dependence on others. An analysis of federal data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) show that young children – those from birth to age 5 – are more likely than older children to be victims of abuse and neglect. In fact, data on child fatalities consistently show that children age 5 and younger experience the greatest risk of death from abuse or neglect.  In 2009, 87 percent of all child maltreatment deaths occurred among those 5 and under, and nearly half of child deaths (46 percent) were among infants (under 12 months of age).

Abuse and neglect can have a lasting impact on children. Scientists from Harvard’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child have described the experience of “toxic stress” for infants and toddlers when their earliest experiences, environments and relationships are not sufficiently nurturing, or when they experience harm. These experiences can result in levels of stress that inhibit growth and learning.

The life-long effects of child maltreatment on physical health and social and emotional development are just beginning to be understood.  Long-term health consequences can include allergies, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure and ulcers. The trauma associated with abuse and neglect can also include neurological effects that keep children in a persistent state of fear, leading to hyper vigilance, anxiety and impulsivity.

When children in the early years are neglected through lack of stimulation, the effects can include cognitive delays, apathy, listlessness and lack of curiosity. This can, in turn, lead to language and speech delays and noticeable differences in brain size. It should come as no surprise that early abuse and neglect can affect cognitive development, impacting a child’s ability to succeed academically.

According to the Zero to Three Journal, the abuse or neglect of infants can also include significant social and emotional effects.  When caregivers are unavailable, nonresponsive, or abusive, infants may be unable to develop basic trust, leading to a child’s diminished ability to form healthy relationships later.

To learn more about the prevalence and effects of maltreatment among the very youngest children, please read our latest “Early Childhood Highlights” brief, Young and Vulnerable: Children Five and Under Experience High Maltreatment Rates.  Another resource is the federal Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood, which provides information on programs and strategies to prevent child maltreatment.

Carol Emig, President
Hope Cooper, Vice President of Public Policy

Child Trends

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Filed under Child Welfare

Economic Benefits of Early Childhood Education

Last Friday, the federal government was minutes away from shutting down over disagreements about the scope of spending reductions for the current fiscal year 2011 budget.  Legislators ultimately agreed to $37.8 billion in cuts from the federal budget through the end of September.  This budget deal follows a series of other negotiated cuts to the current year’s federal budget, and precedes an upcoming debate on the 2012 budget that is sure to be equally contentious.  As policy makers continue to deliberate over federal investments and priorities, tough choices are ahead.

Sometimes policy decisions must be made in an information vacuum, however, in the case of early childhood education, the evidence is clear.  Nonpartisan and reliable research from a variety of sources have produced an ever-growing body of evidence that high-quality early childhood interventions such as home visiting, Head Start, and Smart Start, promote the physical, social and emotional development of children from infancy through adulthood.  In addition, there is growing economic analysis that documents the favorable return on investment for specific high-quality interventions.   A February article in USA Today reported new findings of economic benefit associated with the Child-Parent Centers, as discovered through a federally-funded evaluation study.   The researchers have documented impressive economic benefits:  each dollar spent on Child-Parent Centers returns between $4 and $11 in societal savings over the children’s lifetime as a result of increased earnings and tax revenues (stemming from  improvements in school and work performance), and averted costs associated with reductions in arrests, depression, substance abuse and sickness.  The lead author of the study says that this is up to an 18 percent annual rate of return.

And consider Head Start, where multiple studies have found measurable and long-lasting gains for several subgroups of children, particularly those at high risk for school failure.  A broad-based consortium of leading researchers recently noted that Head Start has been proven to increase the odds for children by ensuring that they are “healthier, more academically accomplished, more likely to be employed, commit fewer crimes, and contribute more to society.”

It is true that tough choices are ahead, but these decisions do not need to be made in the dark. Policymakers can draw on early childhood research to inform their policy decisions and investments.  One resource is Child Trends’ easy-to-use database on programs that work – or don’t – to enhance children’s development.  It offers a series of one-page charts, such as this one featuring effective social programs with positive cost-benefit impacts.  In the realm of smart investments in America’s future, there are a growing number of early childhood programs that are proven to benefit children and society

Carol Emig, President, Child Trends

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Filed under Budget, Children, Early Childhood Education, Head Start, Home Visiting, Smart Start

Highest Percentage of Unemployed Parents noted since 1994: Negative Effects on Children

New labor force information on families with children was released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The new data (for 2010) show that in 13 percent of families with children under age 18, there was no employed parent.  This is the highest proportion since tracking of these data began in 1994.

Having an employed parent has important implications for children’s well-being, even beyond the obvious connection with economic security.  Studies of children with a parent who suffers a permanent job loss due to structural changes in the economy have found that these families have a greater likelihood of parental divorce and family relocation, and the children are more likely to repeat a grade.  And, the children’s own earnings, when they grow up and enter the labor force, are diminished.  Thus, the “scarring” effects of parental unemployment may be multigenerational.  (see the Child Trends Databank for more information on the importance of parental employment.)

Many families depend on two parental incomes to make ends meet, and both dual and single parents must find work that that helps them meet child care expenses.  The share of married-couple families having two parents working fell in 2010 to 58 percent from 59 percent in 2009.  Sixty-four percent of all mothers with children younger than six were in the labor force, as were 56 percent of mothers with infants under one year.

-David Murphey
Senior Research Scientist

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Filed under Child Care, Children, Family Outcomes