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Report: Child welfare systems not tailored to needs of youngest kids

In this photo illustration a baby suckles a pacifier while resting in her cot.
In this photo illustration a baby suckles a pacifier while resting in her cot.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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A national survey finds that state welfare agencies do not consider the unique needs of  infants and toddlers who come in contact with the child welfare system, but that California is doing better than most.

Released Wednesday, the survey results show that the majority of child welfare agencies use a "one-size-fits-all" approach, treating children under 3 years of age the same as older children in foster care. For instance, only three states mandate training for all staff on developmentally appropriate practices for infants and toddlers.

"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," said   Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a national nonprofit that studies issues pertaining to children under 3 and one of the groups that conducted the survey. "The consequences can be profound."

Nationwide 77,000 toddlers and infants are placed in foster care each year. Patricia Cole of Zero to Three said the survey aimed to determine the state of care for these children, as well as those referred to welfare officials who are not taken from their parents.

She said the survey drilled into states' practices and looked at whether all children and their families "are getting the care they need to be on track developmentally, address the problems that led to abuse, neglect or removal, or make a determination that another avenue, such as adoption, is the best course."

California has more developmentally appropriate procedures than many states, according to the survey. It engages in a practice known as "family decision making," which promotes keeping a young child in his or her first out of home placement.

Yet the state can still do better. Cole said that developmental assessments for abused or neglected children who remain at home with their parents is critical, "because their development is equally at risk as that of children placed in foster care."

Zero to Three conducted the survey between February 2012 and March 2013, asking state child welfare agencies about their routine practices and procedures when dealing with children in their care. Fourty-six states participated.

Once a baby or toddler is removed from the home and placed in foster care, follow-up among state agencies varies greatly. Frequent evaluation and oversight of toddlers in foster care is critical, according to Patricia Cole, "because of the rapid development of infants and toddlers and their need for a permanent attachment in order to thrive and learn."

She added that "more frequent oversight of their cases [will] ensure that services that are supposed to be provided to them and their birth parents are in fact being provided."

The report states that due to the "life altering" speed of brain development in toddlers and infants, early intervention — like Child-Parent Psychotherapy if a toddler is determined to have a mental health issue — is key to reducing developmental damage caused by neglect or abuse.

“Needs and developmental timelines are different” for children under three, said Carol Emig, president of Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center that co-authored the study.

“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," the report authors said.

The report also noted that research shows infants and toddlers in foster care benefit from frequent visits with their birth parents. The survey found the majority of states do not offer mental health or substance abuse-related support to all parents of infants and toddlers removed due to abuse or neglect.

The report comes on the heels of another study by the National Academy of Sciences that examined the effect of neglect and abuse on children. That study, released on Sept. 12, found “adverse outcomes for victims of child abuse and neglect can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, poor physical health and attention difficulties and delinquency.”