“Angels in disguise.” That is what one grateful parent calls Child First. What the angels are doing is spreading healing balm on children and their caregivers. They are wrapping their wings around families whose lives are deeply wounded by poverty, violence in the home, child abuse, parental substance abuse, the death of a parent or any other traumatic experience.
In the video below, Dr. Darcy Lowell, who in 1998 founded Child First (known then as First Team), explains why it is so important to intervene with victims of “toxic stress” as early as possible:
We think of toxins—lead, mercury, alcohol—but stress in the environment is every bit as damaging to the brain as the chemical toxins. Stressful environments are impacting children’s emotional development and their mental health, their cognition and their ability to learn. We’ve got to prevent that very early because by the time a child gets to pre-school, the architecture of the brain is already very different.
What we now know about the brain is that if you have a primary care giver who has a nurturing, responsive relationship with a child, that relationship actually prevents the brain damage. And there’ve been many studies that showed how powerful that nurturing relationship was. So that’s what Child First is all about.
Lowell worked with a team of health, education and social service providers in Bridgeport Connecticut to design ways of addressing the needs of children and families who were not receiving the services they needed. With funding from a series of grants, they were able to formulate and test an initiative to reach out to troubled families. Their approach was so effective it has expanded to communities across Connecticut and attracted funding from 12 Connecticut philanthropies as well as the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Child First works because of its carefully designed approach. Families are referred by community providers who work with at-risk populations. Only when a family asks for help does a Child First team visit the family. The teams include a Mental Health/Developmental Clinician and a Care Coordinator. One person focuses on the services the family needs and the other focuses on enhancing the relationship between the parent and child. They take as much time as needed, visiting the family at least weekly for six months to a year, giving support rather than judgment.
The need for these family-healing angels is far greater than we might think. In an October 2013 piece about Child First for the New York Times, David Bornstein referred to a 1990s study by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda:
They found a powerful connection between the level of adversity faced and the incidence of many health and social problems. They also discovered that ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] were more common than they had expected. (About 40 percent of respondents reported two or more ACEs, and 25 percent reported three or more.)
The bad news is that these young victims of ACEs (known more widely today as “toxic stress”) are more likely to act up in school, experience delays in social and emotional development and graduate to even more challenging behaviours, such as depression, teen pregnancy, high blood pressure, suicide and violence.
The good news is that the terrible impacts of “toxic stress” can be reversed, and Child First knows how to kick start the healing. With the support of a grant from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Child First conducted a randomized controlled trial of its interventions and found “clinically and statistically significant impact on child and family outcomes.” What that means in lay terms is that children who had the good fortune to be served by Child First dramatically increased their odds of leading a life with only the normal load of troubles rather than the soul-robbing impacts of toxic stress.
Learning about Child First makes me weep for children I met during two years as a school librarian in a K-3 school. In the 24 classes that sat at my knees to hear stories each week were children who had suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of those who should have loved them best. They needed the angels of Child First to wrap wings around their tiny bodies and give them a vision of a brighter future.
Child First is one of many programs working to change the future for families in trouble, and it is a particularly effective one. They give me hope.