New research shows Early Head Start plays a key role in reducing child maltreatment

November 1, 2018

A new longitudinal study finds that Early Head Start improves key factors shown to prevent child maltreatment. The report, co-authored by researchers from Child Trends, Portland University’ Center for the Improvement of Child and Family Studies, and Boston Children’s Hospital’s Brazelton Touchpoints Center, shows that Early Head Start programs reduce family conflict and parenting stress; support emotionally warm, responsive parenting practices; and promote child cognitive development. By strengthening these four factors, Early Head Start programs reduce the likelihood that a child will become involved in the child welfare system from birth to age 16.

“This was the first time we were able to measure the long-term effects of Early Head Start, and the results were very promising for the lifetime benefits of this program,” said Jessica Dym Bartlett, an expert on child abuse and neglect at Child Trends and co-author of the study. “Our study identified an unexpected long-term benefit given that the program wasn’t originally designed to prevent child abuse and neglect: Early Head Start reduces the likelihood that a child will become involved in the child welfare system well after a family’s participation in the program.”

The study examined child welfare agency records from 14 pilot states from 1997 to 2013 and included a total of 2,794 children (1,414 participating in Early Head Start and 1,380 in the control group). The authors found that the program effects of Early Head Start beginning at age 3 were crucial to longer-term maltreatment prevention: Three-year-olds whose participation in Early Head Start led to less family conflict and parenting stress, more supportive parenting and home environments, and better child cognitive and self-regulation skills were 10 to 22 percent less likely to become involved with the child welfare system than children in the control group.

“Our findings clearly support the long-term value of providing early childhood supports for families starting at birth,” said Catherine Ayoub, a study co-author who focuses on child maltreatment prevention at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center.

These findings demonstrate that increasing access to two-generation strategies such as Early Head Start could significantly reduce child abuse and neglect. While Early Head Start is one of the largest federally funded programs for infants and toddlers in the United States, it is currently unable to meet the needs of all eligible families because of limited funding. In 2015, the program only served 5 percent of eligible infants.

“Practitioners should promote positive family relationships and engaged and responsive parenting,” said Beth Green, lead author and expert on parenting programs at Portland University’s Center for Improvement of Child and Family Services. “This study showed that a comprehensive approach to helping parents develop these habits is important for reducing later child maltreatment. It is critical that we support programs that have this kind of focus.”

Early Head Start is a two-generation program that serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers under age 3. It began in the 1990s as a pilot program with sites in 15 racially, linguistically, and geographically diverse states. All 50 states now have Early Head Start programs that offer home-based education, center-based classes, or a combination of both.