We live in turbulent and transformative times; of this, there can be no doubt. We are experiencing a reset of our social order driven not only by a change in political leadership, but just as importantly by an evolution in technology, science and our understanding of health.
Our political future is largely unknown, but we know a great deal about the direction of science, health and technology over the next decade or so. The pace of scientific and technological advances is a significant driver of our changing lives and society.
One groundbreaking area of learning is the intersection between early life adversity, toxic stress, racial/class disparities and the health of adults in our country. Breakthroughs in the biological sciences and related disciplines over the last 20 years resulted in late 2016 in reports that, for the first time, specifically focused on children served by child protection agencies in the United States.
We learned from the American Academy of Pediatrics that there is no other group of children in America with worse health and mental health status. America produced record levels of high school graduation rates for typical healthy general and special education students, but again children and youth in foster care fell behind and fared worst of any group of children in the U.S.
We now know that our traditional approaches to services, as well intended as they are, make little improvements in the life course outcomes for children in care and most distressingly, we learned that our traditional services add uniquely to the burden of distress and disease that youth experience while in care and later in life.
As Bryan Samuels, former Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, said in 2012: “Simply moving maltreated children from a bad place to a good place does not address the effects of their early life experiences.”
Samuels was referencing the failure of a narrow or simplistic idea of permanency alone being a response to the deep harm caused to the developing brains, bodies and even genomes of children who were removed from parents and had extended exposure to out-of-home care because of severe neglect and abuse.
Most alarmingly, we know that a “pile-up of adversity,” as Harvard’s Dr. Jack Shonkoff described it, can result when untreated in significantly shortened life spans filled with suffering with even larger generational consequences.
But scientist and researchers have also been steadily learning what can be done to improve and in some instances reverse these impacts. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child released a first-ever report in late 2016 outlining an early vision of what maltreated children need from our system to truly heal and thrive. Their recommendations offered a challenging new theory of change for child protection: “Build adult capabilities to improve child outcomes.”
The science clearly recommends a rethinking of practices focused primarily on protecting and psychologically treating children with expanded practices that build adult capacities in parents, relatives, community members, schools and service providers. Beyond the efforts of Harvard, scientists all over North America are moving toward breakthrough advancements for children and youth who are experiencing severe early life adversity, toxic stress and complex trauma.
We also know that parents, relatives, volunteers, community members and professionals hold the ability to make huge contributions to healing children, in a way that can, for many, add decades of improved health and mental health capabilities. Consider the recruitment and retention opportunities alone in a future where child protection systems measurably helped the majority of those served to a future filled with improved health, well-being and opportunity.
Imagine moving from a disparaged system in the eyes of the public, media and policy makers to a system that could produce measurable improvements in the life courses of formerly maltreated children and parents. The only limitation for children, youth and parents of the promise of thriving rather than surviving childhood is the willingness of those in our industry to invest, invent and embrace the change it will take to make it a reality.
Building a system widely valued for its contributions to measurable improvements in health, mental health and educational outcomes for formerly maltreated children is good for society, and it’s just good business.
Kevin A. Campbell is a internationally known youth permanency expert and the model author of Family Finding, a set of strategies used throughout the United States, Canada and Australia to create lifelong supports for children in foster care. Kevin is the co-founder of the National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness hosted at the Seneca Family of Agencies in California.