Cubbies line a classroom wall at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images Staff)

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Head Start may keep kids out of foster care

Head Start programs may keep young children from being placed in foster care, new research suggests.

Kids up to age five in the federal government’s preschool program were 93 percent less likely to end up in foster care than kids in the child welfare system who had no type of early care and education, says Sacha Klein, an assistant professor of social work at Michigan State University.

“The findings seem to add to what we already know about the benefits of Head Start…”

Klein and colleagues examined multiple forms of early care and education—from daycare with a family member to more structured programs—and found Head Start was the only one to guard against foster care placement.

“The findings seem to add to what we already know about the benefits of Head Start,” Klein says. “This new evidence suggests Head Start not only helps kids develop and allows parents to go to work, but it may also help at-risk kids from ending up in the foster care system.”

Klein and colleagues studied the national survey data of nearly 2,000 families in which a child had entered the child welfare system for suspicion of abuse or neglect. Those children were either pulled from the home or were being overseen by a caseworker.

Klein says Head Start may protect against foster care because of its focus on the entire family. Services go beyond providing preschool education to include supporting parental goals such as housing stability, continued education and financial security.

There are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, about a third of them under the age of five, according to the most recent report from the US Department of Health and Human Services. All children in foster care automatically qualify for free Head Start services, regardless of income level.

Klein says the findings suggest policymakers should consider making all children in the child welfare system, including those living at home, automatically eligible for Head Start. That could help prevent more kids from ending up in foster care.

Head Start pays off for kids with multiple disabilities

While foster care can be a vital resource for protecting children from abusive and neglectful parents, it is rarely a panacea for young kids, the study notes.

“Indeed, young children who are placed in foster care often have compromised socio-emotional, language, and cognitive development and poor early academic and health outcomes,” the authors write. “Trauma and deprivation experienced before removal may largely drive these developmental deficits, but foster care often fails to alleviate them and sometimes can worsen them.”

Additional coauthors are from Michigan State University and Children’s Institute Inc. in Los Angeles.

The study is published online in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.

Source: Michigan State University

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