We would like to think of childhood as one idyllic day after another, but for hundreds of thousands of children in America, it is anything but carefree. A new report released by Child Trends and the National Center for Children in Poverty, “Helping Young Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: Policies and Strategies for Early Care and Education” illuminates a national tragedy, which we find hard to acknowledge.
The report presents staggering statistics that suggest approximately 35 million children in this country have experienced at least one type of trauma. One quarter of the confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect are with children less than 3 years old, with the most likely victims being under the age of 12 months. The report also points to the fact that children who experience domestic violence are disproportionately young, with 60 percent under age 6 at the time of exposure.
According to Mississippi’s Children 2016, in 2014 in Mississippi, there were 8,435 victims of abuse or neglect , a rate of 11.5 per 1,000 children, increasing 13.8 percent from 2013. Of these children, 71.4 percent were neglected, 17.5 percent were physically abused, and 11.8 percent were sexually abused. Unfortunately, it is possible hundreds more have been abused, but the abuse not reported.
The common types of trauma occurring during the early years include: abuse and neglect; serious, untreated parental mental illness or substance abuse; witnessing domestic violence; prolonged separation from or loss of a loved one; and incurring serious injuries or undergoing painful medical procedures. Some children face multiple types of trauma simultaneously or over time. Trauma exposure that begins early in life, takes multiple forms, is severe and pervasive, and involves the caregiving system (parents and other primary caregivers) is referred to as complex trauma. Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) suggests that many young children also endure complex trauma. Approximately 70 percent of children who have suffered trauma experience three or more ACEs by the time they reach 6 years old.
Trauma’s impact on children is disastrous on many levels. Brain development is compromised, cognitive development and learning is delayed and social-emotional disorders such as post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to occur, in some children as young as 12 months.
Early childhood (EC) professionals have a significant role in helping young children recover from trauma. In that regard, evidenced-based training for EC teachers and others in a child’s support system is recommended. A systemic approach, often called trauma-informed care (TIC) or a trauma informed approach, is needed. TIC also requires collaboration with other community service organizations to address the needs of traumatized children proactively and to establish program, local and state policies that address their unique needs.
In Mississippi, given the significant budget cuts to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, resources for supporting the mental health needs of infants and toddlers are non-existing. This report brings into focus the need to make investing in mental health services and programs for young children and their families a priority. Unfortunately, the priority our legislators seem to place on our children’s health and welfare, reflected in their budgetary decisions, indicates children are at the bottom of the list.
By Dr. Cathy Grace