“More than ever, my community depends on Head Start–for early childhood education, yes–but also forso much more.” That’s what Rekah Strong, the Executive Director of Educational Opportunities for Children and Families (EOCF) in Vancouver, Washington, recently said when advocating for increased Head Start funding from Congress to increase support for vulnerable children and families.
What more does Head Start provide for children and families? Rekah is referring to the community Head Start creates for families in the area EOCF serves. She’s also referring to the prevention and intervention efforts Head Start makes to address childhood trauma.
Children exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are more likely to have poor health and life outcomes. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found children who experienced severe adversity — such as verbal, physical or emotional abuse or living in a household where there is substance use disorder — were 50% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease later in life than those with low exposure to childhood trauma. Those with moderate exposure to trauma were 60% more likely to die by middle adulthood.
This harsh reality makes prevention and interventions critical in setting children up for success.
Research shows that Head Start children have lower rates of abuse and neglect and are less likely to be involved in the child welfare system than their non-Head Start counterparts. Specifically:
Rekah Strong has seen Head Start’s positive impact on child welfare first hand in her work at EOCF. “Before Head Start, I worked in child welfare for many years, and when it comes to trauma, I see challenges faced by our Head Start children that I have never seen in all my years in child welfare,” she shared in her testimony. “I think about one of our families — the mother was experiencing homelessness, suffering from addiction, and was giving her young children alcohol in their bottles. The three-year-old child was left to parent her one-year-old sibling. Their teeth were decaying and needed to be pulled. They had both been diagnosed with diabetes. That little girl came to us at three years old with no ability to communicate. She received priority enrollment because she and her siblings became a ward of the court and were placed in foster care.”
“When she first came to our program, it was hard to know what success would look like for her. Just six months later, she was using hand signals to communicate her needs and interact with her peers. She was receiving nutritious meals and getting the medical attention she needed. With support from our medical team, our mental health team, and of course the teachers in the classroom, she made monumental progress. She is now in the care of a stable family and connects with her peers and the adults in our program.”
This story is heartbreaking, but also hopeful. As Rekah explained:
With families largely restricted to their own homes due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are growing concerns of increased, but unreported, incidents of child abuse. Head Start has long stood as a disruptor in the cycle of abuse, and despite an inability to see children and families face-to-face right now, that role remains a critical aspect of the Head Start model.
The rate of children with ACEs is already startlingly high, but with much of the country under stay-at-home orders, there are concerns of increased exposure to trauma and abuse. Many families are in confined spaces with additional stresses, and many of the usual opportunities for intervention are not in place because of social distancing.
While most Head Start programs are not operating center-based or home visiting services right now, teachers and staff are continually connecting with children and families in creative ways. Head Start staff are performing wellness checks by phone, over video, through messaging, or by stopping by homes to see children and their caregivers from a safe distance.
At Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Head Start (MWVCAA) in Salem, Oregon, “One staff member who called a family to do a wellness check said the parent began to cry, saying she had not been able to speak to another adult in days. She was so grateful to know that someone cared about them. She had been feeling isolated and fearful, with no real support, and thinking no one even knew she was home alone with her children.”
Stories like this one from MWVCAA demonstrate how Head Start’s continued commitment to the health and safety of children, and to the wellbeing of the whole family, can make a meaningful difference during this challenging time.