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New York: The Besieged Children

When Bowlby interviewed the thieves who had experienced separation, he noticed a strange quality of decreased affect—they had trouble empathizing with others, and seemed oddly indifferent to the consequences of their actions. The psychological roots of criminality are still obscure and obviously complicated. Most children who experience parental separation do not turn into juvenile delinquents and many who don’t, do. However, an eight-fold increase in risk is extremely high in epidemiological terms, and findings similar to Bowlby’s have been reported in more recent studies of young offenders.14

During the past twenty years, developmental psychologists have learned a great deal about the brain mechanisms that link the minds of small children to their mothers—or to the mind of whoever is primarily responsible for caring for them.15 Through the exchange of smiles, games, gestures, and cries in this crucial early relationship, children come to understand the feelings of other people, control their own emotions, and develop the confidence to explore, learn, and play. While it’s conceivable that a child might eventually bond equally well with a foster parent, such placements are often temporary, and relationships are often fraught.16

In other Western countries such as Germany and France, the primary goal of the child protection system is to help poor families care for their own children, not split them up.17 In France, for example, home visiting nurses offer advice and counseling to all mothers after the birth of each child, and those who need help with housing, drug problems, mental illness, or domestic violence receive services, sometimes for years. Children are removed from home only as a last resort. Unlike the US, these nations also guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a child, free or inexpensive day care, nursery schools, and a system of public education that is, by and large, vastly superior to our own. In other words, these countries do what the Child Welfare Fund and like-minded organizations in this country have long advocated. But only the American government can make these investments on a scale that would have lasting impact.

Unfortunately, this is not a direction US policymakers are currently taking. Across the country poor families have suffered more than any other group from budget cuts in recent years. In New York alone, thousands of subsidized daycare, preschool, and after-school programs have been eliminated, along with treatment programs for parents with drug and mental health problems and emergency financial assistance to help struggling families.18 Meanwhile, welfare rolls have shrunk, even as poverty has risen.19 Although the GOP professes to support family values, congressional Republicans now propose—with Mitt Romney’s approval—to save $261 billion by cutting food stamps, school lunches, children’s health insurance, child abuse prevention, and other programs, while preserving defense spending and low taxes for high-income earners.20

America’s harsh treatment of poor families may help explain why we do so poorly compared to other developed nations on just about every measure—from school achievement to rates of high school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and mental illness.21 It’s not for sentimental reasons that other countries invest in children; they do it because their leaders know the future of their societies depends on it.

  1. 14

    Heather Juby and David P. Farrington, “Disentangling the Link Between Disrupted Families and Delinquency,” British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 41 (2001). 

  2. 15

    Peter Fonagy et al., Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self (Other Press, 2002); Edward Tronick, The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children (Norton, 2007); From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, edited by Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips (National Academy Press, 2000). 

  3. 16

    Aaron T. Smyke and Angela S. Breidenstine, “Foster Care in Early Childhold,” in Handbook of Infant Mental Health, edited by Charles H. Zeanah, third edition (Guilford, 2009). 

  4. 17

    Sane Waldfogel, The Future of Child Protection (Harvard University Press, 1998). 

  5. 18

    Marina Marcou-O’Malley, “Early Childhood Education: Frozen Funding Leads to Cracks in the Foundation,” Public Policy and Education Fund/Alliance for Quality Education/Citizen Action of New York/Winning Beginning, New York, 2012; Andrew White, “The Dream of Reinvestment,” Child Welfare Watch, Winter 2011. 

  6. 19

    Jason DeParle, “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” The New York Times, April 7, 2012. 

  7. 20

    Jonathan Weisman, “House Bill Offers Aid Cuts to Save Military Spending,” The New York Times, May 7, 2012. 

  8. 21

    Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury, 2010 ). 

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