High Quality Early Care and Education is Child Maltreatment Prevention

June 10, 2016
Young boy playing in a park

As ACF celebrates its 25th anniversary, and National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Foster Care Month come to a close, we can take some time to reflect on the collaboration on early childhood issues and child welfare that has been in place for more than a decade across the Office of Head Start (OHS), Office of Child Care (OCC), the Children’s Bureau (CB), and the Office of Early Childhood Development (OCED).

This is a time to take stock of what we know, what we are doing, and what else we need to do.

We know that very young children have the highest rates of child maltreatment, and infants are the most likely to die from child abuse or neglect. Children under the age of five are the largest age group coming into foster care. Prolonged stress and adverse experiences can weaken the architecture of the developing brain and can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

Early care and learning programs play an important role in providing services and supports to prevent child abuse and neglect, promote healthy development and resilience, and counterbalance the effects of adversity. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates high quality early care and education programs can reduce parental stress, promote child development, link families to services, and enrich the learning environment for disadvantaged children. Several home visiting programs have been found to improve outcomes in early childhood and prevent child maltreatment. A study of children who participated in Early Head Start (EHS) suggests that EHS may be effective in reducing child maltreatment, to include physical and sexual abuse, among low-income children. Stability in child care placement was also found to buffer some of the negative effects of household chaos. A forthcoming research brief from ACF's Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) examines evidence related to safety, permanency, and well-being as benefits of early care and education for children in child welfare.

We are using this research to underscore the importance of Early Childhood-Child Welfare partnerships and to direct our work to address the needs of our most vulnerable young children

Highlights of our interagency work includes:

Joint Information Memoranda to encourage collaborations in early care and education for children involved with child welfare

CB, OHS, and OCC have previously issued guidance to encourage more intentional partnerships between child welfare agencies, EHS and Head Start agencies Visit disclaimer page , and state child care agencies and support promising practices such as, cross-training, referral, and targeted enrollment of vulnerable families in EHS, Head Start, and child care programs.

Statutory and Regulatory Opportunities through the Child Care Development Fund and Head Start

  • State child care agencies can prioritize child care subsidies for children in protective services, and have initiated innovative partnerships to meet the needs of this population.
  • Foster children are categorically eligible for EHS and Head Start, regardless of family income. OHS encourages grantees to prioritize categorically ineligible children with an open case with the child welfare system for enrollment due to risk level and family need.

Research and demonstration grants to test innovative early childhood and child welfare collaborations

We have done a lot, but there is still more to be done. In the future, we envision increased collaboration amongst child welfare and early childhood systems to support and amplify positive outcomes for children prenatal to eight and their families.

Ensuring the most vulnerable children and families benefit from high quality early care and education programs requires a cross-systems approach and a commitment to engaging families and communities in new and more meaningful ways. Now is the time to re-energize our efforts to work together across sectors to prevent child maltreatment and promote healthy early childhood development because our young children can't wait.

On June 8, the Children's Bureau hosted Partnering for Impact: Early Care and Education for Child Welfare-Involved Children and Families, a digital dialogue to share highlights from the research, and strategies and lessons learned from Early Childhood – Child Welfare partnerships. Video of the event is available online Visit disclaimer page .  

More information about ACF’s Early Childhood – Child Welfare Partnerships and the Child Welfare Information Gateway Visit disclaimer page .

CDC also recently released Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect: A Technical Package for Policy, Norm, and Programmatic Activities Visit disclaimer page to help states and communities prioritize efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect, including providing high quality early care and education.

Additional Resources:

ACF - Report on Child Maltreatment (2014)

ACF - Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Report #22 (FY 2014)

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child – InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development Visit disclaimer page  (2007)

James J. Heckman – Early Childhood Education: Making Sense of All the Research Visit disclaimer page (December 2015)

Early Childhood Research Quarterly - Household chaos and children's cognitive and socio-emotional development in early childhood: Does childcare play a buffering role? Visit disclaimer page (2016)

The Future of Children - The Role of Home-Visiting Programs in Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect Visit disclaimer page (Fall 2009)

ACF - Early head start research and evaluation project - Promising Evidence that Early Head Start Can Prevent Child Maltreatment (PDF) Visit disclaimer page (September 2014)

Early Childhood Research Quarterly – Household chaos and children's cognitive and socio-emotional development in early childhood: Does childcare play a buffering role? Visit disclaimer page (2016).

Program Office: