Jan 18, 2018

What affects young children? Opioid abuse, lack of child care

Last week, Building Bright Futures released a report looking into how Vermont young children and families are doing.

The nonprofit, which serves as the designated Early Childhood Advisory Council to the governor and Vermont legislators, said on the whole, the kids are all right — Vermont leads the country in the number of children accessing healthcare, and there is growing participation in pre-kindergarten programs since the universal pre-K law was passed in 2014.

However, there are a growing number of children that are being placed into protective care because of the opioid epidemic. More Vermont children on average have two or more adverse childhood experiences, compared to the rest of the country, which include trauma and neglect. And affordable access to child care is often hard to come by in the state.

The rate of children under age 9 in protective custody has nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015, from 6.4 per 1,000 children to 12.4 per 1,000 children.

“Substance abuse is the greatest factor,” Sarah Squirrell, a resident of Waterbury and executive director for Building Bright Futures, said. Currently, 71 percent of women coming into opioid treatment have kids, so now there is a push for “family-friendly settings that are multigenerational.”

Having an opioid-addicted parent is just one of the many different “adverse childhood experiences” that Vermont children potentially experience. Currently the rate of Vermont children that go through two or more these adverse experiences is higher than the national average — 13.8 percent, versus 12.5 percent nationwide of children under age 5.

“Ninety percent of the brain is developed by age 5,” Squirrell said, so “helping younger kids is the key to long-term success.”

Early childhood education and child care are also imperative to helping all Vermont families, Squirrell said.

“Middle-income families spend 40 percent of their income on child care and 30 percent on housing. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for investment in your children,” she said.

She hopes the report serves as a resource for the administration and legislature to figure out how to help young children and families.

A local perspective

Nicole Grenier, owner of Stowe Street Café, is on the Building Bright Futures state advisory council. She has been sharing her own story to help “correct the myth that this is an us-versus-them issue” when thinking about child care.

Grenier’s 20-year career before opening Stowe Street Café was in helping children with adverse childhood experiences and mental health issues. She carries those stories as she tells her own to help Vermont young familes.

Her two children, a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, help to highlight how far Vermont has come. Just after her first child, Eli, was born, she was going through a rough divorce while balancing being a new parent and holding down a full-time job. She also struggled to pay for pre-K.

Now, her daughter goes to pre-K full time. Because of Act 166 she gets 10 hours of pre-K paid for, and “every little bit helps,” Grenier said. For her son who was in pre-K seven years ago, there was no such help.

“Now knowing a certain number of hours will be covered, certainly goes a long way towards sort of easing that burden a little bit,” Grenier said.

“The sooner that we can go in and do the work and make the investments earlier on, the better,” Grenier said. “I’d much rather spend my money as a mother, a business owner, as a resident in investing in early childhood and preventative factors for families than having my income go toward funding incarceration for juveniles or adults, or expensive residential services and care.”

Click here to read this story on the Waterbury Record website. 

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