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Opinion: Early childhood support is vital for Colorado families

Measuring a child’s wellbeing can be difficult, but often you “know it when you see it.”

You see children boldly and confidently interacting on the playground and delighting in sharing newly developed skills. It’s when they are healthy, valued and thriving.

Edward “Ned” Breslin

Maltreatment is similarly hard to measure. Yes, there are cases of abuse and neglect that meet relatively narrow legal definitions and warrant the involvement of the child protection system. But there are many situations that don’t rise to this level; situations that no one – least of all parents and caregivers – want for children.  

Tiffany Perrin

Sara (not her real name) is juggling a 1-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, several jobs to make ends meet that have travel challenges, insecure housing and periods of food insecurity blended with trauma and a haunting personal history.

Mothers like Sara can be maligned or quickly judged when in fact they should be applauded. Sara makes decisions that few wish to make to give her children the best possible life. She has made the hard decision to separate herself and her children from others who could harm them and works hard to transform and not transmit her trauma. She projects a “mama bear” ferocity that screams, “What happened to me will not happen to my children.”  

Families with young children who are facing challenges like Sara’s are plentiful in Colorado. Many are regularly making difficult choices, like choosing whether to pay rent or buy food, that cause stress which, if unaddressed, can morph into abuse and neglect over time — despite a parent’s sincerest attempts to provide the best for their children.

There is a growing focus on whether our communities are set up to offer support earlier and help prevent abuse and neglect from occurring.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Absent participation in the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), or other such programs, children may go “unseen” until they enter school. As a result, there’s little opportunity for outside providers to identify and mitigate risks and bolster supports prior to crisis. 

Colorado’s youngest children make up a disproportionate share of child welfare cases at every stage.  Nearly a third of all referrals for child abuse and neglect involve children under the age of 5 in the Denver metro region alone. This cohort represents over half of those children with open child welfare cases, and about half of those entering foster care.

Taken together, these statistics suggest that we lack the means of identifying and supporting families with young children. Instead, too often, these families are only identified when they are in crisis and when child maltreatment has already occurred. 

The financial costs associated with child maltreatment are staggering.  Nonfatal child maltreatment costs an average $830,928 per victim/lifetime, which translates to $27.2 billion in economic burden for cases of maltreatment in the Denver metro area alone. 

In addition, the emotional and generational impact of the resulting trauma from maltreatment is well-documented. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

We can start by recognizing that the time from birth to age 3 is unique: part magic and part demanding with sleepless nights, feeding challenges and learning to manage huge new expenses. Early childhood can also be an isolating time for parents as they find their resources – emotional and financial – stretched thin.  

As children get older, they are better able to express their needs, and are surrounded by teachers, coaches and other adults who can, at times, read the signs of struggle better. 

This increase in connectivity also yields more data on children, equipping caring adults to support individual children and mothers like Sara, and equipping communities to better meet the needs of children more broadly. Older children quite simply, are “seen” more often than younger ones.

Connection and community are essential in supporting a parent’s ability to be the kind of parent they want to be. Being able to call on friends, family and community is key when you’re celebrating your best days as a parent and when you’re needing support to make it through the most trying ones.

We applaud agencies that are pushing early interventions to support families like Sara’s. This is hard work, and agencies like Illuminate Colorado, Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood at the Department of Human Services, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, county human services and public health agencies, Warren Village, Nurse Family Partnership and investors like the ZOMA Foundation refuse to wait for children to get older to proactively engage and support them.  

Illuminate, for instance, works with communities to build supportive environments to inspire the creation of Circle of Parents groups, led by parents and other caregivers, where parents are the experts and guide families to new heights.

Colorado is also home to a strong network of early childhood home-visit programs that support families with young children in the earliest years to help forge strong connections to their communities, helps families overcome challenges that could threaten child wellbeing and promotes strong parent-child bonds. 

The work is creative and centers on these families’ strengths. It relies on the power of strong communities to help ensure that all families – especially those with young children – have the connection and support they need to thrive, and provides earlier-stage support to help families succeed, reduces trauma and reduces the staggering costs to Colorado associated with inaction.  

Colorado prospers when our kids thrive because they are our future workforce, leaders and community members.

Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children. Tiffany Perrin is a ZOMA Fellow at Tennyson.

Rising Sun