The many challenges faced by Durham's youngest and poorest residents and their parents are well known.
More than a quarter of Durham's youngest children live in a home where the head of household's income is at or below the poverty level and nearly half live in a home where the head of household's income is at or below 185 percent of the poverty level.
Too few women of color, African-American and Hispanics in particular, receive the prenatal care vital to ensure their babies enter the world healthy. And when those children arrive in kindergarten, too few have the foundation they need to be successful readers and students, and they are often traumatized by “adverse” life experiences.
Those are just a few of the issues addressed in a new report titled the “State of Durham County's Young Children” released Friday at a breakfast meeting at the Durham County Department of Social Services.
The report looks at Durham's youngest children, those up to age 8.
The research and subsequent report were a joint project between Durham County and the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.
The hope is that the report will be used to guide public officials as they consider important policies that impact the well-being of young children and their families, and their chances for future success.
“I hope this report will galvanize the Durham community and drive community change,”said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who helped to lead the effort that produced the report. “We can build on the strong programs that we already have to ensure that more families access the services they need.”
Reckhow said the findings shared Friday will serve as an important backdrop for a report from the Universal Pre-K Task Force that is scheduled to be released Thursday, April 27.
She said County Commissioners are solidly behind universal Pre-K for Durham's children.
“The fact that only 38 percent of kindergartners enter kindergarten ready to learn highlights the importance of Pre-K,” she said. “Moving to universal Pre-K is a goal of the Board of County Commissioners.”
She noted that Transylvania County in the western part of the state completed a similar comprehensive assessment of its young children a few years ago that has already produced important changes in that county around the issue of prenatal substance abuse.
“So, folks, I don't want this report to be just sitting on a shelf somewhere,” Reckhow said. “This report needs to lead to positive action.”
Beth Gifford, a research scientist with the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and director of Durham's Children's Data Center, conducted much of the research that went into the report.
Gifford reported that 1,647 children were the subject of a maltreatment report in 2015, a number that highlights the importance of the need for special training for teachers and others so they can help children cope with “adverse” childhood experiences.
“We suggest providing trauma-informed services in a systematic way,” Gifford said. “This includes training teachers and educators as well as nonprofit agencies so they are equipped to handle these diverse needs that children are experiencing.”
Many of the “adverse” experiences are the result of parental neglect or maltreatment due to mental health issues or substance abuse.
Gifford noted that Durham Connect nurses identified serious mental health issues in 12 percent of mothers they saw and reported violence in 3 percent of the homes visited.
In addition, 7 percent of mothers seen by the nurses self-reported substance abuse.
That number jumped to 13 percent among African-American mothers.
Ken Dodge, director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, credited Reckhow for having the vision to take a deeper dive into the issues surrounding the needs of Durham's youngest and most vulnerable children.
“She wanted to first learn where children's needs are the greatest so that the community can focus it's attention,” Dodge said. “She had the idea that the way to begin was to get an idea about how our children are faring.”
The report makes five specific recommendations:
▪ Provide trauma-informed services in a systemic way to build resiliency in young children. The services should include screening for adverse childhood experiences and training parents and school personnel to address trauma in children so that they can reach their full potential
▪ To ensure that Durham County infants enter the world healthy, increase efforts to educate the community about preconception and prenatal services available in Durham. Outreach efforts should focus in particular on Hispanic and African-American communities.
▪ Improve the availability, affordability and quality of early child care and education in Durham with the goal of improving all children's preparedness for kindergarten.
▪ Expand educational and support services in grades K-3 so Durham's children meet or exceed the state average for reading and math proficiency.
▪ Improve data collection across agencies and age groups so that the community can continue to identify the areas of greatest need and to track progress in areas that have been identified as a focus.