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Investing In A Better Road Ahead For Massachusetts' Most Vulnerable Children

It's time to shift our focus away from repairing broken adults to building strong children. (Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
It's time to shift our focus away from repairing broken adults to building strong children. (Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
This article is more than 5 years old.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
--Frederick Douglass

These words are as relevant in 21st century Massachusetts as they were when the renowned social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke them in 1855. Rather than addressing the harrowing effects of slavery on generations, however, we now speak about adverse events in childhood that lead to less than optimal outcomes in adulthood.

The costs of underinvesting in education and overcoming trauma, particularly in our youngest, most vulnerable children, are real. As the CEO of one of the largest children and family service providers in New England, my job is to try to undo the effects of neglect, abuse, untreated mental illness and substance abuse among parents and caregivers before it’s too late.

[Prisons] create a vicious cycle in which children of the incarcerated<strong> </strong>end up in the care of Commonwealth — another drain on our coffers, and one with disastrous results.

Consider one metric: incarceration. According to a White House report released last month, “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,” real expenditures on the criminal justice system in the U.S. have grown by more than 70 percent in the last two decades. Spending on incarceration nationwide totals $80 billion. Eleven states spent more on imprisoning people in 2013 than they did on higher education.

And who makes up the prison population? Broken men and women who embody the suffering of underinvestment. According to the White House report, approximately 65 percent of prisoners did not complete high school, and 14 percent have less than an eighth grade education. In addition, more than 50 percent of our incarcerated citizens have mental health problems. Nearly 70 percent were regular users of illegal drugs prior to being incarcerated.

Being tough on crime may make us feel safer, but prisons are not, arguably, a sustainable investment if we are looking to create a thriving, productive society. In fact, they create a vicious cycle in which children of the incarcerated end up in the care of Commonwealth — another drain on our coffers, and one with disastrous results. Of the current prison population, 13 percent grew up in foster care. Children who age out of foster care, having never been adopted or reunited with family, are more likely to be homeless. They often struggle with the basics of taking care of themselves.

Fortunately, there is another way. But it requires a profound shift in our focus, from fixing broken adults to building strong children.

According to research by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, the first five years of a child’s life are crucial for setting them up for future success. The researchers have identified definitive interventions that have been proven to build resilience in children, regardless of background, including ensuring that each child has a strong relationship with a caring adult. This can take the form of a mentor, a teacher that has the time and capacity to be a constant presence in a child’s life, or, perhaps most importantly, a parent who has the support he or she needs to overcome struggles with mental illness or substance abuse.

The Massachusetts State Senate debates its budget this week, and as part of this process, Senate Ways & Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka has introduced a number of initiatives that aim to shift our focus towards building strong children. The Senate seeks to increase funding for mentoring programs across the state and invests heavily in early, K-12, and higher education. It also seeks to increase access to community-based family resource centers, where entire families can receive support in dealing with job loss, addiction and other stressful life events that can signal a descent into child neglect and even abuse.

Massachusetts can, and should, lead the way in proving that we are much stronger when we all take care of each other, starting with our youngest children.

The initiatives included in the Senate budget will cost money, it’s true. But it also costs money to continue to build more prisons, provide treatment beds for those swept up in the opioid epidemic, and provide for those on unemployment and public assistance. These investments have terrible returns from a societal standpoint. And the dollar amount doesn’t begin to capture the generation-spanning devastation that underinvestment in education and building resilience has on our families and communities, who are denied the tools they need to overcome adversity and succeed.

As a Commonwealth, we can ultimately judge our priorities by where we end up investing our tax dollars. It is exciting to see Senate Ways & Means Chair Spilka make a concerted effort to move the conversation towards the types of programs and services that make positive impacts with the individuals and families my staff and I serve, and which have been backed up by research. Massachusetts can, and should, lead the way in proving that we are much stronger when we all take care of each other, starting with our youngest children.

Related:

Joan Wallace Benjamin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joan Wallace Benjamin is president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers.

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