Child care is especially important for our at-risk kids and their families. Studies show that 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5 so early childhood is a critical developmental period for children. Many young children involved in the child welfare system do not have access to the early care and education services that help stabilize families and build a solid foundation for a child’s future.

This lack of access can lead to increased risk for an array of poor outcomes, including developmental delays, low academic achievement, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, socio-emotional issues and adult criminal behavior. Fortunately, high quality early learning programs can help reverse or decrease these trends.

Under current law, priority enrollment in state child care and development services is given to abused or neglected children who are receiving child protective services (CPS), or children at risk of abuse and neglect. It would seem obvious that all children under Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) supervision should be categorically eligible and given the same priority. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority are not receiving these services due to vague and confusing policies.

For instance, some Education Code sections have been interpreted to exclude children from these child care preferences when they are removed from their parents and placed into foster care, even those who are placed with relatives. For instance, in October of 2011, only 12.8 percent, or 1,509 children on the DCFS caseload under age five were receiving early education services.

The child welfare and early education systems have to work together to ensure the well-being of the most at-risk children by increasing their access to early care and education services. According to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, “All children under supervision of DCFS between 0-5 should be prioritized for access to Early Childhood Education learning programs.”

Children in the child welfare system are five times more likely to have developmental delays than children in the general population. According to the Advancement Project, “neuroscience research demonstrates how initial experiences provide scaffolding for later development… Consistent dependable adults help children learn about their environments and how to manage stress before it accumulates and harms the development of young brains.”

Los Angeles County also has a great need to recruit more foster parents, particularly for children under 5. The bed shortage is especially acute for infants, partly because of the significant gap between the cost of fully caring for these children and what the state pays families. As the landscape of foster parents evolves to include more working families, access to child care is crucial to finding a home for these young children. According to focus groups conducted by DCFS, child care is one of the top three barriers to placing children under age 5.

Finally, there is a significant need to provide access to child care for those at-risk children whose young parents are under DCFS supervision (pregnant and parenting teens) and who are aging out of foster care, including 282 young children whose parents are currently under DCFS supervision. Young adults with a history of maltreatment are more likely to experience poverty, unemployment and be investigated for abuse or neglect of their own children.

To break the cycle of dependency and ensure self-sufficiency, these parenting foster youth should also be prioritized for state-subsidized early education services.

On March 17, 2015, the Board of Supervisors directed the Interim Chief Executive Office to:

– Work with our Sacramento advocates to support or pursue legislation to clarify existing law for state-subsidized child development services.

– Send a 5-signature letter to Governor Brown with copies to the County’s Legislative Delegation, in support of such clarifying legislation.

Hopefully, we can get our foster families the help they need.