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April 01, 2018 Children

The Trajectory of Childhood - Bridging Adolescence to Adulthood

By: Benita Miller

This article, printed with permission in Family Law Quarterly, is based on “Growing Up NYC: A Policy Framework,” agencies/childrenscabinet/NYCDOH_GrowingUP_Policy_Brochure_ For_WEB.pdf, a publication that grew out of collaboration among the offices of the New York City mayor and deputy mayor and the twenty-four agencies and mayoral offices forming the NYC Children’s Cabinet. The Cabinet is a multi-agency initiative created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to bolster communication and coordination among city agencies to improve child safety and well-being. “Growing Up NYC: A Policy Framework” was produced under the direction of Children’s Cabinet Executive Director Benita Miller.


I. Introduction

"Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree said, "Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy." "I am too big to climb and play," said the boy. "I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?" "I'm sorry," said the tree, "but I have no money. I only have leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy." And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away. And the tree was happy."

--The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein *

There are varied opinions about the takeaways found in Shel Silverstein's 1964 children's book The Giving Tree about a boy and an extremely generous tree. The tale begins when the Boy is small and the Tree allows him to swing from her branches and play in her shade, as well as eat apples. The Boy grows older and expresses a desire for material things and experiences and, eventually, he pointedly tells the Tree that he needs money. Having no money, the Tree offers her apples for the Boy to sell. By selling the apples, the Boy drifts into adulthood with the material resources needed to support himself in building a life. At the end of the book, the Boy finally returns to the Tree as an old man looking for a place to rest after he has experienced a full life. Whether you view the Boy's relationship with the Tree as one grounded in selfishness or not, the book explores human growth and transformation by highlighting the yearning of young people at a certain point in their development for "things."

It is a reasonable expectation on the part of young people that their families and community will supply the resources that are needed to successfully shepherd them on their life's trajectory. Unfortunately, many teen-agers and young adults nowadays have well-founded reasons to worry about whether there will be enough familial and/or public resources available to help them successfully transition to adulthood. For young people struggling with poverty or complex social welfare challenges, a lack of resources--or access to limited resources--is even more worrisome and heightens the responsibility of policymakers to craft programs to ease some of that worry.

A little more than year ago, New York City's Children's Cabinet embarked on an effort to better understand the interplay between policy and program implementation in the lives of children--the Cabinet wanted to articulate what it means to be a child who will grow up in one of the largest cities and what role government should play in supporting them on their journey to adulthood. Together the twenty-four agencies and mayoral offices that are part of the Children's Cabinet began working to assess the range of programs and initiatives designed to meet the needs of children and their families. Aside from the initial questions that sparked the discussion, the Cabinet also explored whether there were opportunities to better coordinate programs and reduce the chances of working at cross- purposes, which sometimes does happen.

The Cabinet's process included gathering input from external stakeholders, including education and youth development leaders, parents, caregivers, and young people from across the City. These initial findings helped to set a course of action aimed at leveraging research and outcome data to prioritize investments and cross-agency program development, as well as resource sharing--all the while appreciating the voices of young people and parents and recognizing how data are limited in that they often do not provide the anecdotes to articulate how people experience programs. So a set of "guiding principles" was developed and, from the outset, it was understood by the agency leaders and external stakeholders that there would need to be a "champion" charged with moving these principles from paper to practice. Bear in mind that such a process was expected   to be iterative, with new data potentially yielding new opportunities or the most urgent needs of families causing the redirection of resources. For instance, as the shifting policy landscape unfolded at the federal level, local policymakers would be need to be adaptable and to develop a framework broad enough to allow for shifts.

II. Growing Up in NYC

New York City is home to almost three million children, youth, and young adults aged twenty-four and under. These young New Yorkers reflect the enormous diversity of the City in that they come from all socioeconomic levels, many ethnicities, and a wide variety of family structures. Young New Yorkers attend many different kinds of educational institutions--from community-based early childhood centers to local colleges and universities--and, in the case of young adults, work in an array of jobs. The vast majority of these young New Yorkers have caring adults--in their families and communities--to guide and support them on their path to adulthood and to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. These networks of support also provide adolescents with much-needed stability and social capital so that they are prepared to make the best transition to adulthood.

Toward that end, the Growing Up NYC framework is centered on three basic concepts. First, there is the belief that childhood extends into adulthood because an increasing body of evidence supports the idea that child development is shaped from before birth and continues well past adolescence as young people's brains continue to develop. In this sense, it also defines childhood along a zero-to-twenty-four age continuum and acknowledges the importance of fostering partnerships with parents, families, and communities to address young people at every stage of their development. The first concept assumes that, at each stage of development, government leaders should design programs that offer children, youth, and young adults the resources and supports they need to meet major cognitive, emotional, and physical milestones.

Second, children's development takes place in various environments, including their homes, schools, and neighborhoods. These environments may vary in importance over time and often overlap and blend into each other. To adopt the best policies and implement them in the most effective ways, there is a focus on these environments to assess opportunities for improvement and the current levels of support available to children and their families.

Third, the policymakers must commit to developing key investment and policy tracking tools designed to evaluate the degree to which they have succeeded in meeting the needs of children. The work on behalf of young people should proceed from the notion that all children are entitled to support and have access to experiences that further their growth and cultivate their abilities so that they become successful adults.

It is well-settled that when children are given the support they need to thrive, the whole society benefits and communities are made stronger long into the future.

Much like the Tree yearning to help the Boy have all of the resources he will need to strive toward adulthood, policymakers must focus on young people having the best educational, work, and social opportunities to improve their chances of successful transition to adulthood.

III. Defining Childhood

"Childhood is commonly understood as a biological and developmental phase in which individuals lack maturity and are therefore in need of protection." "As such, childhood is a powerful normative grounding for legal frameworks and social institutions such as familial responsibilities owed from parent to child and the state's duty to establish child-serving institutions such as schools."  Unfortunately,  the  early  "constructions of childhood were deeply racialized, and  [notably]  Black  children  were largely excluded." Generally, black children  were  not  afforded the protection of the state, and their families, relying heavily on their children's labor, required them, out of necessity, to participate in work or care for smaller children or the elderly. While there have been favorable legal and cultural shifts, remaining on the margins are large numbers of black and Hispanic children as well as other vulnerable youth who do not fit the normative construct of childhood. Granted, the degree to which any child will struggle is relative to the background of the gender, race, and economic realities of his or her life.

Therefore, it is important in a climate of shrinking public resources and conflicting priorities that the policymakers charged with tending to the needs of children do so in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion. It is only through coordinated efforts that the needs of all children--especially those who vulnerable--will be identified and addressed in publicly funded programs.

During the Obama administration, there was a push for state and local government leaders to focus on outcomes through a greater understanding of "what works," as indicated by administrative data. The use of data to improve performance sometimes dictated funding or encouraged innovation. Consequently, local policymakers have used data to design and measure their efforts, particularly when it comes to strengthening the fragile safety net of resources made available to children and families.  As communities across the United States face unprecedented rates of unaffordability, homelessness, and incarceration, policymakers are charged with "doing more with less" and must craft responsive programs and policy that have demonstrable impact so that young people are able to successfully transition to adulthood. In order to address the needs of the most vulnerable populations now and into the future, many policymakers and government leaders, much like those in New York City, are developing policy and practice frameworks that leverage data and knowledge across multiple agencies to develop programs. It is no longer enough for any one public agency to solely focus on its mission; instead, there is an emerging understanding that work must occur across multiple agencies in an effort to share resources.

IV. Establishing Guiding Principles

Embedded in Growing Up NYC is the following set of principles designed to advance programs and initiatives that represent the collective beliefs and values that support healthy development and improved well- being outcomes for children, youth, and young adults.

  1. Support children along an interconnected age continuum.

    - Address the immediate needs of children, youth, and young adults with an intentional focus on the subsequent stages of growth.

    - Strengthen their capacity to build the skills and competencies they will need to succeed in all aspects of their lives.
  2. Adopt a holistic approach, supporting the "whole child."

    - Focus on the holistic developmental needs of children, youth, and young adults.

    - Consider their health and well-being and social, emotional, and educational growth in order to support a positive transition to adulthood.
  3. Support families and sustain home life.

    - Recognize that strong families are foundational to the success of young people.

    - Provide parents and caregivers with information, opportunities, and resources to support their children in becoming self-sufficient, happy adults who contribute to their families and communities.
  4. Promote child-centered communities.

    - Provide safe places, spaces, and opportunities for children and families to engage in recreation, social engagement, and community- building activities.

    - Engage and invest the broader community in programming and supports for children.
  5. Leverage and align resources and programming.

    - Align and sequence agencies' programming to reduce inefficiencies, increase access to programming, identify and address gaps in services, and intensify positive outcomes for children, youth, and young adults.

    - Identify opportunities to develop new programs or share resources to better meet the needs of specific populations.
  6. Invest in evidence-informed practices and interventions.

    - Prioritize public investments in programs that have proven positive impact on young people.

    - Support research and evaluation of new efforts with a focus on identifying best practice models.
  7. Innovate with new models that cut across silos.

    - Seek innovative and fiscally efficient ways to address persistent, unmet needs and challenges for children, youth, and young adults.

    - Eliminate long-standing bureaucratic barriers that do not serve the interests of children.
  8. Connect government and constituents in new ways.

    -Bring City services to the people, connecting them with government where they live, work, and play.

    - Leverage both technology and direct person-to-person outreach.
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V. Identifying Risk and Protective Factors

For government leaders to meet the needs  of  young  people  and  their families, policies and programs must promote healthy childhood development. Program development should occur on an age-graded continuum with a particular eye towards closing the gap for vulnerable youth. For many, it is both the early years and later adolescence where preventive doses help young people stay on track or get back on track. These two developmental periods require policy and program strategies that acknowledge the risk and protective factors that impede and promote sound, healthy child development. Risk factors, natural and manmade, abound in most cities, as do the protective assets of children, their families, and their communities. Government must work with families and communities to find the right way to tip the balance between risk  and protective factors so that young people experience positive well-being outcomes.

If other jurisdictions develop a framework similar to the one in New York City, then it is important to have a clear vision of what constitutes positive well-being. For children to succeed and move seamlessly from childhood to adulthood, they need to develop the necessary "human capital"--a set of skills that helps them navigate their way through life. There has to be an understanding of what these skills are and an ability to monitor whether--and how well--they are being acquired. The idea of human capital takes a dynamic view of this process, with an emphasis on how skills are developed, or not developed, over time.

The Growing Up NYC framework proceeds from two additional assumptions. First, it sees human development as a series of transitions. Some of these transitions are biologically based (e.g., puberty) and others are socially constructed, such as school graduation dates. Second, it sees well-being as being strongly influenced by how a child navigates these transitions, and it views the progress a child makes as cumulative: skills, once acquired, beget the development of new skills and increase the ability of a child to move on to the next transition.

The developmental path is longer than it might appear. A growing body of research shows that a child's development begins before birth and continues well beyond adolescence. In developing the framework, New York City committed to addressing the needs of children throughout this zero-to-twenty-four continuum, working in partnership with parents, families, and communities to provide the resources and supports that young people need to acquire essential skills at every stage of their development. In developing the New York City framework, policymakers and stakeholders held several learning sessions to discuss what resources were available to children at each of these critical transition points to move on to the next stage of development. To do this, the sessions focused on articulating a clear conception  of what a  child  needs at  each point to succeed, as well as indicators that inform about how children are actually doing at these stages. At each phase, there are set cognitive and relational skills that promote a child's ability to successfully navigate toward successful adulthood. This level of understanding helps shape the appropriate interventions and supports needed to ensure successful age- graded transitions.

Second, the sessions explored a range of universal risk and protective factors considered key to developing programs that address the needs of youth as they transition to adulthood. Universal factors transcend any given life stage and are salient at every point along the developmental trajectory. Other factors are uniquely associated with a particular transitional phase, such as, for example, those that are particularly relevant during the teenage years (high school).

A successful transition to adulthood through the lens of child well-being is rooted in understanding the risk and protective factors that apply across a child's developmental trajectory from birth through emerging adulthood. These occur at the individual, family, and community levels.

A. Individual Factors

  1. Physical Health

    Physically healthy children are better able to succeed in adulthood. Promoting children's health can narrow the educational achievement gap, help children to thrive socially, and increase their economic self- sufficiency.
  2. Emotional and Behavioral Health

    Along the trajectory of child and adolescent development, there is an acknowledgment that emotionally healthy children are more likely to excel in the classroom and have good physical health, they are less likely to be involved in crime, and they are likely to have greater levels of social well-being.
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    B. Family Factors

    1. Poverty

      Living in  concentrated and  protracted poverty often interferes with a child's ability to acquire the skills he or she needs to succeed in adulthood. Poverty has been shown to have a negative effect on physical and mental health, the ability to think, and the ability to learn, as well as the development of personal relationships and community engagement, among other important aspects of life.
    2. Housing Instability and Homelessness

      Housing insecurity--defined as housing costs that are out of proportion to income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods, overcrowding, or homelessness--is linked to poor outcomes across many domains. These include the ability to manage stress, focus in school, positively engage caretakers, form healthy relationships, and experience quality sleep. Unstable housing also increases the risk of various negative health outcomes because of inconsistent health care. Stressors commonly found among poverty-stricken children can have a devastating impact on a child's ability to learn, develop skills, and grow.
    3. Lack of Food Security and Adequate Nutrition

      When children and their families do not have consistent access to nutritious food, it becomes harder to learn, feel safe, form strong relationships, and meet developmental milestones. Research consistently indicates that children and families who lack food security are much more likely to experience a variety of negative outcomes.
    4. Child Maltreatment

      Maltreatment can lead to numerous physical, psychological, behavioral, and social-emotional problems for children. These include improper brain development, physical injuries, chronic diseases, psychiatric disorders, and death. Maltreatment can interrupt a child's ability to learn, grow, gain skills, and become a productive adult member of society.,
    5. Domestic Violence in the Home

      Exposure to violence in the  home  can  have  serious  consequences for children, including increased risk for emotional and behavioral problems, such as post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, depression, and difficulties in academic as well as social functioning. Children who are exposed to domestic violence when they are young are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic violence in adulthood.
    6. Substance Misuse in the Family

      Substance misuse can make it harder for parents and caretakers to  care for their children effectively and consistently. Research shows that parental substance misuse can put children at an increased risk of negative outcomes such as poor cognitive, social, and emotional development; mental health problems like depression and anxiety; physical health problems; and substance abuse later in life.
    7. Mental Illness in the Family

      Studies indicate that parental mental illness can increase the risk of children developing behavioral, social, emotional, and educational problems. Mental illness can make it harder for a parent to bond, communicate, and engage with his or her child,  processes  that  are  all important for a child's development. Furthermore, children with mentally ill parents have an increased risk of developing mental health problems themselves.
    8. Parental Incarceration

      Having an incarcerated parent can have a negative impact on a child's mental health, social-emotional well-being, and education achievement. Separation due to a parent's incarceration can be as painful as other forms of parental loss and can create additional burdens because of  the stigma and a reduction in economic and social support that often accompany it.
    9. Family Structure

      Children have the best chance of succeeding when they have the support of loving parents. Being raised by a single parent often means receiving reduced levels of economic and emotional support. Growing up in a single-parent home has been linked with increases in cognitive, emotional, and social problems for children, which often peak early in life but can continue into adulthood.
    10. Parental Involvement in Education

      When parents and caretakers are involved in their children's education-- communicating with teachers, participating in school events, helping with homework, and encouraging study--children benefit. Research indicates that parental involvement can promote student academic achievement for children of all ages, in all subject areas, and regardless of parents' educational background, socioeconomic status, or race.
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      C. Community Factors

      1. Community Violence and Crime

        Children who live in communities with high rates of violence and crime might experience neurological, physical, emotional, and social challenges that severely interrupt their development. Such environments can have a negative impact on children's cognitive performance and ability to pay attention, even when they do not directly witness the crime and violence. Children of different ages are affected differently, but all children and families are at risk of adverse consequences.
      2. Access to Health Care Services

        Children benefit in all aspects of their development from access to health care, including preventative care that is comprehensive, continuous, family-centered, and culturally sensitive.
      3. Access to Mental/Behavioral Health Services

        Millions of children in the United States are affected by mental health problems, with low-income children suffering disproportionately. Because these problems can have long-lasting effects into adolescence and adulthood, sound mental and behavioral health care plays a critical role in healthy child development.
      4. Access to Safe Recreational/Community Spaces

        As children and youth learn how to engage with the world around them, safe and accessible spaces for recreation and socialization can play an important role in their development. These environments are linked to increased physical activity and better health, as well as improved mental well-being and increased opportunity for positive social interaction. They also help to increase children's connections to their communities.
      5. Internet Access

        High-speed Internet is an essential service that New Yorkers depend on to communicate, learn, make a living, socialize, and access important goods and services. Internet access is as critical for children, youth, and young adults as it is for other New Yorkers, and it plays an important role in helping their development and preparation for adulthood.
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        D. Other Factors

        Armed with a deeper understanding of the risk and protective factors that shape outcomes regardless of race, gender, and class, the factors mentioned here are by no means meant to be exhaustive and instead should highlight the complex and nuanced decisions policymakers must make, particularly when addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.

        VI. Conclusion

        New York City is making significant strides in positively impacting child well-being outcomes in several areas. The number of children in foster care is at a historical low, teen birth rates have sharply declined, and alcohol consumption among youth has steadily declined, mainly because agencies have improved cross-agency coordination and resource sharing. However, there is more that can be done to build on these strides. And by zooming in on areas of concern, through its coordinating body, government leaders are able to initiate discussions that move to action in an effort to help children. Although there has been a slight decline in youth employment, in 2012 more than six million young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four dropped out of high school in the United States. Disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic youth were among those who failed to complete high school. Coupled with a failure to complete high school, black and Hispanic youth are exposed to higher rates of violence and experience higher rates of unemployment than their white counterparts. These youth face obstacles "on-ramping" to adulthood and often are consigned to lifelong attempts to enter the labor market and earn wages that lift them out of poverty. Ultimately, the types of supports they need to improve their lives typically do not lie within the purview  of a single agency such as a school district or child welfare system. So consequently, the more complex the challenges they face, the more system coordination is required to achieve any significant results.

        This  progress  has  been  the  result  of  government  leaders  working together, leveraging administrative data, and listening to young people. Additionally, motivated by cost savings or the stark reality of shrinking resources, the operational practices require integration with strong feedback loops so that there is an opportunity to build on what works as well as identify areas for refinement. For example, in New York City, there is greater collaboration among the child welfare agency and youth development agency to prepare youth aging out of foster care by providing them with meaningful workforce development training and internships. The City's public assistance office has opened dedicated program sites  to support youth who are on public assistance and in need of specialized training and enhanced supports such as mental health services.

        Now that New York State has raised the presumptive age of juvenile accountability for sixteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds, there are more opportunities to develop programs for these teen-agers and their families. This historic policy shift means that, once the legislation is fully implemented by 2019, these older youths will no longer be prosecuted in adult court. This will mean that youth will benefit from interventions and programs that are currently only available to children who are younger than age sixteen and involved in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

        Efforts to improve coordination across government agencies as well as to publicly articulate a clear set of goals matter; such efforts help ensure that youth and young adults, especially youth of color and those with limited education and job skills, are able and prepared to fully participate in the labor market. Second, a focus on resource and data sharing helps  to fortify the well-being of youth and young adults by aligning a core   set of well-being indicators to services provided through government and community-based programs.

        There is a likelihood that vulnerable populations, such as adolescent parents and youth who are involved in the child welfare or justice systems, will have poor outcomes. Consequently, policymakers must be attuned to the need to develop policies or enhance programs that support them. Many poor or low-income youth face vulnerabilities due to event-driven life circumstances that a reliance on the middle-class family's social capital and networks could resolve in their favor. In some instances, this might mean that policymakers must shift systems to provide flexible childcare arrangements for parenting students or extend the lengths of stay in foster care placements to reduce premature transitions to independence.

        For youth who have endured trauma during their childhood, it is critical to provide them with services and opportunities to process and fold these experiences into their lives. Government agencies best serve youth when they leverage data such as adverse childhood experience studies.

        Our time demands a diversity of ideas and interventions to meet the needs of all children. By agreeing upon a set of risk and protective factors, as well as key indicators of what success looks like, policymakers will  be positioned to make better policies, and the external stakeholders, including youth, will have access to programs aligned with their needs on their journey to adulthood. We owe all youth an opportunity to play  in the shade and eat apples, as well as attain the material resources and experiences that will help them prosper as adults.

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Benita Miller

Executive Director, New York City Children's Cabinet, City of New York, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives.