Tens of thousands of Connecticut infants and toddlers are at risk for social and emotional problems, and the professionals who interact with them most need mental health training in order to help them, according to a report released this week. Children who live in poverty, are homeless or have suffered abuse or neglect are among those most likely to experience trauma at a young age, according to the report by the Child Health and Development Institute (CHDI) of Connecticut, and the key to helping them is providing the right support. “There is a tremendous opportunity to improve children’s lives by promoting a child’s secure attachment with a caregiver from the beginning,” said Judith Meyers, a psychologist and president and CEO of CHDI. “Professionals who care for young children are in the unique position to help families develop nurturing relationships.”
The nonprofit institute suggests that all doctors, teachers, early care providers and others who work with infants and toddlers in Connecticut be trained in infant mental health. Helping children process and cope with trauma early is essential to their future success, said Melissa Mendez, co-lead author of the report and associate director of early childhood at the Wheeler Clinic in Plainville.
The state Department of Children and Families will increase oversight and services to families with parental substance abuse, mental health and other problems who are identified at “highest risk” of a young child dying, the agency announced Monday. The move comes as Connecticut grapples with a high number of child deaths, outlined in a recent report by the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). In the report, OCA found that DCF’s response to “at-risk infants” was often insufficient, showing “gaps in risk assessment, treatment planning, case follow-up, and quality assurance.”
DCF said the new effort to target high-risk families came out of its own study of 124 fatalities that occurred between January 2005 and May 2014 of children ages three and under in families with some DCF involvement. The study findings are “prompting changes that will pinpoint families with the highest risks and increase oversight and services for these families,” the agency said in a statement. The study, which compared cases in which a child died to a control group, found that fatalities were less likely when DCF had conducted comprehensive assessments of parents’ needs.
The state will use a $4 million federal grant to launch a pilot program in a New Haven neighborhood that officials hope will be a statewide model for improving early identification and treatment of children’s mental health. The five-year grant, announced Tuesday by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, will not add new mental-health services for children, but instead will embed care coordinators and clinicians in schools and pediatric offices, in an effort to catch problems early and improve access to existing programs.
The grant is targeted to children ages 8 and younger in the city’s Dwight neighborhood, which has a robust network of mental health providers, including Yale-New Haven Hospital. “This is all about making the existing services more effective and accessible,” DCF Deputy Commissioner Michael Williams said of the grant project, dubbed the Elm City Project Launch. He said the agency selected the Dwight neighborhood because it has a “tremendous array of services” to handle referrals to care resulting from increased mental health screenings. In other areas of the city and state, he acknowledged, “There clearly are a dearth of services” – a problem that the new grant does not address.