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November 01, 2016

Using Child Development Science to Strengthen Child Welfare

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has published a new report, Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems.

The report is written for a broad audience—leaders of public child protection agencies; private nonprofit service providers; courts; legislative committees overseeing child welfare; education, mental health, and juvenile justice systems; and frontline practitioners and supervisors. 

Part one presents key child development concepts—how abuse and neglect affect development; the importance of relationships and positive experiences in building a child’s strong brain architecture; how maltreated children can build resilience; and the basic capabilities adults need to buffer the harmful effects of adversity and promote healthy child development.

Part two explains how to apply the science from part one to improve child welfare, framing the discussion around five principles:

Use science to open new ways of thinking and acting—stresses how science is key to informed action and can inspire changes in policy and practice that support healthy development.

Reduce external sources of stress—explains how child welfare systems can create safer, less stressful environments for children and parents who have experienced toxic stress to promote healthy development, improve self-regulation, and help children and adults build critical skills.

Develop responsive relationships—explores how healthy relationships are essential to children’s brain development and protect challenging experiences from producing toxic stress, and their importance for adults who need to make substantial life changes.

Strengthen core life skills—explores how the child welfare system can support the foundational skills adults need to parent effectively and the skills children need to move on a healthy path to adulthood.

Attend to the distinct needs of infants and young children—shares how child welfare policy and practice can recognize the needs of infants and toddlers to set the foundation for lifelong health and learning.

The paper takes a holistic view at how to improve the well-being and long-term life prospects of vulnerable children and speaks to all professionals, organizations, and systems that have roles to play.

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