Children 0-5 represent 38% of the US foster care populations; this is a 10% increase since 2000. Early childhood is a remarkably sensitive time in neurodevelopment. A combination of both genetics and experience shape how the brain develops and can impact an individual permanently across their lifespan. There are a number of developmental risks associated with maltreatment, such as attachment disorders, cognitive delays, poor self-esteem, challenges with social skills and empathy; these risks are exacerbated by removal from their home and multiple placements.
Perhaps for that reason, there has been much recent interest in YAP’s 0-5 Reunification model: in December of last year, YAP and St. Lawrence County Deputy Commissioner Diane Wilby presented to a full room at the Zero to Three Conference in Fort Lauderdale; last week, they workshop was presented at the New York Public Welfare Association Conference; and in April, they will facilitate a workshop at the Child Welfare League of America’s Annual Conference in DC.
YAP’s first 0-5 Reunification program, located in rural upstate St. Lawrence County, New York has worked with 48 families since 2012, and 100% of children achieved permanency in an average of 22 weeks and within only one out-of-home placement: 60% were reunified with their biological parents; 20% were placed with relatives; and 20% were placed in adoptive homes.
“Changing the Course for Infants and Toddlers,” authored by Zero to Three and Child Trends in 2013, writes that “although the first years of life are a time of great vulnerability, they also present an opportunity to intervene early to prevent or minimize negative effects. Through high-quality, timely interventions focused on the unique needs of infants and toddlers, the developmental damage to very young children who have been maltreated can be significantly reduced.”
At YAP, we find this to be true in our work with infants and toddlers through our 0-5 Reunification Program in St. Lawrence County. However, we find it equally important to focus on the needs of the parents of these children. Through the data we collect on our families, we find that they have a number of demographics in common:
- They are all under 30;
- Unemployment is a significant issue for most (77% of Moms are unemployed; 54% of Dads are unemployed);
- 74% have at least one mental health diagnosis (in addition to addictions or cognitive delays);
- They are generally undereducated (86% of moms and 95% of dads have a high school diploma or equivalent or less);
- 100% on public assistance;
- 71% of moms in CW system as children; 50% of fathers.
YAP’s uses a 2-generation approach in our work with families, whereby parents receive help accessing supports that they need and in healing trauma from their own experiences, as well as interventions targeted towards children. Family-based practices such as these promote child safety, well-being and permanency through strengthening and supporting the entire family.
The primary focus is on securing healthy attachments and reducing trauma, so frequent supervised visitation is prioritized immediately. Advocates transport mothers to- and attend- these important visits so that they can hold and bond with their baby.
Additionally, YAP Advocates work very closely with parents on developing their parenting skills through a planned curriculum and through coaching and modeling for them through the course of normal daily activities. Advocates help parents establish routines, baby-proof the home, connect parents with resources in the community, such as mental health counseling, transportation to appointments, and connection to jobs programs. The interventions vary based on the specific needs of that family.
“In my experience, mothers addicted to drugs or alcohol love and want their kids as much as any parent, but need help,” writes Deputy Commissioner Wilby. “It is our obligation to support most mothers, and help them do everything they can do to get better and be together with their children.” Thanks to the vision of Deputy Commissioner Wilby and the collaboration between the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services and YAP, we are living up to that obligation, and children and families are benefiting as a result.