Policy Resource

National Foster Care Month - What You Can Do To “Change a Lifetime”

May 18, 2012

Every seven minutes in America, a baby or toddler is removed from her parents’ care and placed in the home of someone else, often a stranger.

Children under age 3 make up 31% of children entering foster care. At this time in life, their brains are developing rapidly, creating 700 new neural connections every second. Maltreatment can have a significant impact on this development, as can foster care practices that aren’t calibrated to a very young child’s developmental needs.

May is National Foster Care Month. It provides a prime opportunity for infant and toddler advocates to raise awareness and visibility of the very youngest children in care and how to help them reach their potential. This year, the theme is “Achieving Well-Being With Children and Youth in Care,” with a focus on supporting child welfare professionals as they seek to build well-being postpermanency.

For infants and toddlers, this means child welfare professionals, together with community stakeholders, must do all that they can to understand, promote, and protect these young children’s ability to develop and sustain secure attachments. When very young children are formally separated from their caregivers, they face challenges in maintaining and healing relationships. All babies need at least one adult in their lives who is just crazy about them. Without this attachment, their development can deteriorate rapidly, resulting in delays in cognition and learning, relationship dysfunction, and difficulty expressing emotions.

Just keeping babies safe is not enough. Negative foster care experiences, such as moving from placement to placement, also can have a profound effect on young children. Infants in out of home care are particularly vulnerable to delays in emotional, social, and cognitive development, placing them at high risk for negative outcomes later in life.

Yet, the rapid brain development that creates this vulnerability also opens a window of great potential. Intervening early and effectively can prevent or minimize negative effects that become more difficult to address later in life. Thus, it is crucial that child welfare systems infuse guiding principles for infant and toddler development into practices and policies.

Several developments suggest that Washington is attuned to these needs. Last September, Congress passed the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, creating a new requirement for states to describe in their child welfare state plans how they promote permanency for and address the developmental needs of young children in their care. Recently, the Administration for Children and Families issued detailed guidance to states on promoting child wellbeing.

Now it’s time to build momentum in the states. These developments offer an opportunity for states to be more intentional in their efforts to meet the unique needs of infants, toddlers, and their families. We all have a stake in helping vulnerable young children beat the odds.

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