Washington, D.C. — The “one-size-fits-all” child welfare approach adopted by most states does not work in meeting the unique developmental needs of many of the 200,000 infants and toddlers who come under their care annually, according to a new report by ZERO TO THREE and Child Trends. The first three years are a time when a child’s brain is developing at life-altering rates and when early intervention can significantly reduce developmental damage.
The report, Changing the Course for Infants and Toddlers: A Survey of State Child Welfare Policies and Initiatives, is based on a 2013 survey of 46 state child welfare agencies. States were asked to respond to questions regarding the policies and practices that guide their work in addressing the needs of infants and toddlers who have been maltreated.
The key findings underscore the need for action especially in light of a major study recently released by the National Academy of Sciences indicating that “adverse outcomes for victims of child abuse and neglect can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor physical health, and attention difficulties and delinquency.”
Key findings from Changing the Course for Infants and Toddlers include:
- Of the 46 states who responded to the survey, 31 states do not routinely hold case reviews, permanency hearings, other court hearings, or family group decision-making meetings on a more frequent or expedited basis for infants and toddlers in foster care, as compared to other age groups. Because the earliest months and years of a child’s life are a time of tremendous growth and development that occurs within a short window of time, services and supports must be put in place for vulnerable young children as quickly as possible. For infants and toddlers, the timeliness and frequency of foster care reviews and hearings is critical so that concerns can be quickly identified and addressed.
- Only three states require training on developmentally-appropriate practices for infants and toddlers who have been maltreated for all child welfare staff, including case workers, supervisors, and administrators. It is important that ongoing training on infant-toddler development be provided to all levels of child welfare staff, to help them understand the impact of trauma on child development and developmentally-appropriate practices.
- The majority of states do not have policies that require that health, mental health, and substance abuse-related supports be offered to all parents of maltreated infants and toddlers involved with the child welfare system. Parents of children in the child welfare system often face a plethora of challenges—sometimes stemming from their own childhood trauma—that must be addressed before they can nurture their children and better meet their needs and, where children have been placed in foster care, be reunified. Research shows that infants and toddlers in foster care do better if they have frequent interactions with their birth parents.
“This report is an important call to action for state child welfare agencies to establish stronger policies and practices that specifically address the needs of our most vulnerable children in foster care,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE. “When young children are removed from their home and placed in foster homes—often multiple foster homes—it can exacerbate the effects of the maltreatment they already experienced. The consequences can be profound.”
“Children under three represent nearly a third of all child maltreatment victims,” said Carol Emig, president of Child Trends. “These young children are completely dependent on others for their care. At this stage of rapid development, they need healthy, consistent relationships with adults. Child welfare policies for infants and toddlers should be different than those for older children, because their needs and developmental timelines are different.”
The good news, according to the report, is that we know what works. It highlights a number of ways states can strengthen support for infants and toddlers who have been maltreated, including those in the foster care system:
- Expand services to meet the needs of all maltreated infants and toddlers, not just those in foster care;
- Differentiate policies for infants and toddlers in foster care to include shortening the time between screenings for health or developmental concerns and holding more frequent case reviews, hearings, and visits with case workers;
- Provide training on early childhood development for all child welfare professionals; and
- Provide broader supports for all parents, especially birth parents, who need to have frequent scheduled interactions with their young child, and provide health, mental health, and substance abuse-related support to birth parents.
“We simply can’t miss this opportunity because the cost to children, and to society, will only increase over time,” said Melmed.
To access the report, visit https://www.childtrends.org/changing-the-course-for-infants-and-toddlers/.
ZERO TO THREE is a national, nonprofit organization that provides parents, professionals and policymakers the knowledge and know-how to nurture early development. The ZERO TO THREE Policy Center is a nonpartisan, research-based resource for federal and state policymakers and advocates on the unique developmental needs of infants and toddlers. zerotothree.org
Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that provides valuable information and insights on the well‐being of children and youth. For more than 30 years, policymakers, funders, educators and service providers in the U.S. and around the world have relied on our data and analyses to improve policies and programs serving children and youth. Our work is supported by foundations; federal, state and local government agencies; and by nonprofit organizations. childtrends.org