Investing in Early Child Development Improves Health Outcomes

Family Building Blocks works to prevents cycle of child abuse and neglect while improving public health

January 24, 2012 -- Jamie had a physically abusive mother, a situation that led to her living with an aunt to escape the violence at home. Even there, Jamie wasn’t safe; her uncle sexually abused her in the very place she went to find refuge. Eventually, Jamie found support from another family member and was able to graduate from high school.

When Jamie became pregnant, the child’s father didn’t want to keep it. Jamie did. She started seeing a counselor who referred her to Family Building Blocks because she was an abused child about to become a mother. When Jamie’s daughter, Madison, was three-months old, the father decided to leave.

“Madison and I were left to figure it out,” Jamie said.

Through Family Building Blocks, Jamie learned what being a good parent really meant.

“They (Family Building Blocks) gave me the confidence and tools to become the kind of parent I wanted to be,” Jamie explained.

Family Building Blocks’ therapeutic classes provide new parents with an opportunity to do something different than their parents did.

“Being able to break that cycle of abuse, that as I’ve gotten older I realized has gone back more than one or two generations, is amazing on my part,” Jamie said. “If Family Building Blocks hadn’t been a part of our life, I really hate to think about what my life would have been like. I probably would have moved back home with my mother, and I think I would have repeated a lot of the patterns that I saw in my childhood, abusive patterns, just because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that there was another way to do things.”

Jamie is now in school and hopes to become a nurse. Madison has a baby brother, Caden, and both have thrived under the guidance of Family Building Blocks, not to mention the determination of their mother.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I don’t think I would have been able to do that without their help.”

Family Building Blocks, which serves Marion and Polk counties, is one of 15 relief nurseries in Oregon working to prevent the cycle of child abuse and neglect, thereby preventing the public health consequences that can result from poor early child development. It provides services for high-risk families who have children six weeks to five years old. Their programs focus on building successful and resilient children, strengthening parents, and preserving families through comprehensive and integrated early childhood and family support services.

“We make sure every child has a health care provider,” said Sue Miller, Executive Director. “We work with parents on a number of health related issues, nutrition being a big one.”

Family Building Blocks serves 800 children a year, with 150 children on their waiting list. According to Miller, approximately 85 percent of the families they work with are self-referrals, with 30-40 percent of the parents indicating that they were victims of abuse when they were children.

Statistics published by the Oregon Department of Human Services’ “Child Welfare Data Book,” show that an estimated 11,188 children were victims of child abuse and neglect in Oregon in 2010. That means over 11,000 children who may very well become unhealthy adults. Compound that number annually and the effect on public health becomes obvious.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges child maltreatment as a serious public health problem with extensive short- and long-term health consequences. Furthermore, a recent Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego showed that traumatic childhood experiences have a powerful influence on an adult’s health even decades later.

According to that study, individuals who suffer childhood trauma are more likely to smoke, become obese, struggle with depression, suffer from lung disease, contract hepatitis or a sexually transmitted disease, attempt suicide, and use intravenous drugs.

Another study published in Child Abuse and Neglect in 2007 found that adults who endured abuse or neglect during childhood are even more likely to suffer from physical ailments such as arthritis, asthma, allergies, bronchitis, high blood pressure and ulcers.

“We know that if we can work with the family when the children are young that there are significant benefits for all of us down the road,” Miller explained. “Investing early makes all the sense in the world.”

In 2010, 99 percent of the children in the Family Building Blocks child abuse prevention programs were able to live safely with their parents thus avoiding the trauma of abuse, neglect, and foster care, not to mention abuse-related health problems as adolescents and adults. 

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