Policy Resource

Infants and Toddlers in the Child Welfare System: Congress Answers the Call

Sep 26, 2011

Back in May, a group of concerned children’s organizations issued A Call to Action on Behalf of Maltreated Infants and Toddlers, urging policymakers and practitioners at all levels to adopt a developmental approach to caring for babies in the child welfare system.

Last week, Congress answered the call. Both House and Senate passed and sent to the President the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act (H.R. 2883, S. 1542), reauthorizing federal child welfare programs. One of the provisions requires states to describe in their child welfare plans how they address the developmental needs of young children in their care—a first for federal legislation.

The Call to Action grew out of a concern on the part of ZERO TO THREE and colleagues at the American Humane Association, Center for the Study of Social Policy, Child Welfare League of America, and Children’s Defense Fund that the child welfare system does not adequately address the potentially devastating effects of maltreatment on infants and toddlers. Infants and toddlers are most vulnerable to maltreatment and its effects, because their brains are developing at life-altering rates. Maltreatment can cause chemical alterations that undermine the brain’s architecture, resulting in a weak foundation for all learning that follows. Babies placed in foster care can experience further damage if their care is not viewed through a developmental lens, beginning with the trauma of being removed from their parents’ care. Speaking at a Congressional Baby Caucus briefing last spring, psychologist Dr. Brenda Jones Harden described this trauma as “major surgery without an anesthetic.” Once in foster care, multiple changes in placement may add to the damage that these infants and toddlers have already experienced, as fragile new relationships are severed. While it is often assumed that infants and toddlers are immune to early adversity and maltreatment, in reality more than one third of babies in the child welfare system have developmental delays.

Not even one baby should be sent through life without the care that could prevent or repair developmental damage, yet the number of young children affected makes the situation truly alarming. A quarter of substantiated abuse and neglect cases nationally involve children under age 3, who also account for almost a third (31%) of children entering foster care. Once in, they tend to stay longer and return at greater rates even after being reunited with their parents.

Whether the requirement that states address the developmental needs of young children is a baby step or a giant step depends on how states respond. It is important that they see this new provision as an opportunity to reexamine the care they provide to these most vulnerable children, rather than as another item to check off their state plan. We hope they will use the Call to Action as a resource to think about the series of steps within a developmental approach. We also hope other state and local stakeholders and advocates will join with state child welfare agencies to achieve the goal of infusing what we know from the science of brain development into what we do for infants and toddlers who deserve a good start in life.

Here are a few ideas for getting started:
  • Ensure that procedures are in place and are being followed to fulfill the requirement in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act that all infants and toddlers with substantiated cases be referred to Part C Early Intervention for developmental services.
  • Incorporate training on early childhood development into training for social workers, judges, court personnel, and anyone else who touches these young children’s lives so that they understand both the effects of maltreatment and the importance of supporting strong relationships as the context in which a young child’s development unfolds.
  • Emphasize concurrent planning that includes a strong focus on the parents’ needs to give families a real shot at staying together.
  • Work with the mental health system to increase development of and access to services appropriate for young children together with their parents.
  • Bring child welfare to the table in planning for the Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge so that these vulnerable children will have access to appropriate services to support their development, and so that the early childhood education system will understand their special needs for continuity with familiar caregivers.

As these are just a few steps, the task of undertaking a truly developmental approach can seem daunting. Yet, we know it is possible if we are determined. Along with other successful initiatives, the Call to Action describes ZERO TO THREE’s Safe Babies Court Teams, which put this developmental approach in action every day for babies in their care. Safe Babies Court Teams identify resources throughout the community and bring them to bear for each baby and family. Their judges make decisions based on what will best support the baby’s development.

Is implementing a developmental approach easy? No—it requires a lot of hard work and thoughtful changes in how things are done in child welfare. But is it worth it? You bet it is!

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