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Child Neuropsychology A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed
  • Children, poverty, neglect and brain development

    Children’s welfare and development entered UK politics yesterday with David Cameron the Conservative leader talking about the warmth of parenting being more important than poverty in outcomes with poor children. Polly Tonybee in the Guardian wrote a stinging reply. This prompted me to think about my experience as a child psychologist with children from neglected backgrounds. For the past 13 years some of my work has involved assessing children in care, both residential and foster care. This has shown me how damaging early experience of abuse and neglect is for children, how it is reinforced and not addressed. It is a big problem. There are approximately 60000 children in care in the UK . The number of children with a child protection plan is increasing every year. The vast majority of children that I see in this context have cognitive, social and emotional difficulties. It is rare to see a good outcome. In the UK 12% of children in care get 5 GCSE passes compared to 59% in the general population. 23% of adult prison population were in care as children, 42% of prostitutes had been in care and 45% have mental health problems.

    In my experience there is often a common pathway. There is a history of concern about abuse and neglect dating from birth. Often the parents themselves had a history of abuse which they cope with by taking drugs and alcohol. They have no experience of good parenting themselves. Women often end up with partners who perpetuate abuse in the form of domestic violence. Many children are placed on and off the Child Protection Register during early childhood. Eventually (normally from age 8-13) they are placed in foster care. The children in residential care seem to have had several foster placements break down first. By the time they are placed in residential care it is too late to change the situation. By this stage children start to become involved in drugs, gangs, criminal behaviour, start underachieving educationally and in the case of young women engage in abusive relationships. Obviously this doesn’t happen to everyone but I would estimate it does in 70% of the cases I see. The cost to society is massive and the cycle of problems continues.

    What is also often missing in the debate is the effect on the brain of abuse and neglect. The first five years of life are crucial in terms of brain development. A recent study by Evans and Schamberg looked at the effect of childhood poverty and stress on working memory and explains the mechanism by which this happens. For a review of the literature on neglect and brain development in general see this paper by Danya Glaser. My own data and experience shows a large proportion of children in care with learning problems, neuro-developmental difficulties, self regulation problems and difficulties with social relationships. Waiting until a child is a teenager and then putting them in prison, giving them counseling or criticizing them doesn’t work. Their brains are already damaged. Trying to blame their parents or fine them doesn’t work either. Often they can’t cope in life due to their own history of abuse, drug addiction or neurodevelopmental problems.

    In my opinion the state has to intervene at an early age to break this cycle. There was recently an interesting article by Camilla Batmangheldjh in The Times about the need for good child protection to break the cycle of violence. There may be a need to remove children much earlier from the damaging home environment and place them in care rather than wait for the damage to occur, reinforce it with several short term placements and then put them in residential care in their teens. It would be better for children to return back to parents without the early damage. It may be that providing very high levels of one to one support in the home situation would help. Leaving it to the parents to change by themselves or expecting them to change through nagging,criticism or simple intervention won’t work. Ignoring the problem won’t work. The fundamental point is the need to intervene early to change the inevitable brain damage that occurs. These children are often forgotten. Few people look out for them and I wish this would change. In my opinion it is not just about blaming poverty or blaming parents but seeing the cycle of abuse and neglect that occurs through generations, seeing how this affects brain development and then trying to intervene to stop that cycle perpetuating. Is this possible? Despite yesterday’s debate I don’t see any political party in the UK addressing this properly yet.

    Published on January 12, 2010 · Filed under: abuse, brain development, neglect, poverty, working memory; Tagged as: , , ,

6 Responses to “Children, poverty, neglect and brain development”

  1. I’m skeptical that the social environment can have any impact on cognitive abilities. Probably the reason that kids from neglected backgrounds perform poorly is bad genetics.That’s not to deny that environment can impact on IQ, but it seems to be only the biological environment (i.e. nutrition) that is relevant.

  2. I read that the main cause of mental retardation in children is neglect. Others are bad prenatal care, smoking and drugs during pregnancy, etc. In short, most cases of mental retardation are preventable.

  3. [...] Children, poverty, neglect and brain development [...]

  4. I have also been working with abused children since 1983 and am alarmed at the slow pace of change in relation to the provision of child care services including mental health services. This century, a RCP report found that only 10-20% of children in care with significant mental health needs are even admitted to mental health services. Despite their pronounced and substantial needs, these children are rarely at the centre of government funding initiatives, and short-sighted managers and practitioners alike are more seduced by high-profile packages such as parent training. But if these packages were so successful, then why are child care/protection plans and children in care rising? I haven’t seen the camila article, but I am often struck by any view that advocates putting more children in foster care. Where are these noble people who will give up their jobs and their spare bedrooms and studies/offices to care for highly disturbed children? Although I’m sure they exist, I don’t personally know a single psychiatrist or psychologist who is a foster carer. We can’t even go and buy some in Woolworths anymore! In my opinion we need a whole cultural (multi-systemic) shift towards prioritising the needs of vulnerable children and by that I mean children who don’t have powerful parents or parents at all who can meet their needs. We are stalling for time to suggest that it is a single dimension of a child’s existence (e,g, their genes or their budget) that makes of breaks him, and time runs out for each subsequent generation. We are too often looking for simple answers to complex problems. Maybe that’s a weakness of our training, or perhaps it’s the byproduct of working in institutions that have exchanged passion and conviction for pledges and promises

  5. [...] Children, poverty, neglect and brain development [...]

  6. Alun Flynn said on

    I note the comment that you are not aware of a psychologist who is a foster carer. I am an educational psychologist, and my wife and I are short term carers. In practical terms the opportunity was advertised on the County Council web-site, which was helpful.

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