Child Welfare Systems Grapple with How to Translate Brain Science into Practice

The idea of brain science in child welfare is hardly new but a pair of recent efforts highlight a growing push in the child welfare field to move an influx of findings drawn from the worlds of neuroscience and child development into practice.

According to leaders in the field, child welfare policies and practices can see immediate and substantive benefits from the successful translation of this emerging brain science, but several challenges remain.

A recently released brief from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University draws attention to translational opportunities for brain science in a child welfare context. Researchers from the center have helped define the harmful toll “toxic stress” takes on many children and even adults in the child welfare system.

Toxic stress can result when children experience stressful situations that include abuse, neglect, violence, poverty or caregivers with substance abuse or mental health issues, disrupting the development of brain architecture.

Steven Cohen, the author of the brief and a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child, said that the science around toxic stress and even adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has been initially well understood but challenges remain in linking the science in practical ways for practitioners and policymakers.

In Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems, the opportunities to apply developmental science range from ways to deliver services to at-risk families to the care of children who are in foster care. The paper does not highlight specific programs, but rather areas where child-welfare leaders can change practices around emerging ideas about the way the brain handles stress.

For example, the paper suggests that more attention could be given to creating well-regulated, streamlined ways to deliver services to at-risk families, instead of the often-chaotic environments that can overload self-regulation and create anxiety.

Addressing developmental issues caused by toxic stress can also help those in the child welfare system — such as caseworkers, judges, foster parents and relatives — change the way they think of children in foster care with challenging behaviors, according to Cohen.

“Understanding where those behaviors come from and what the things are that trigger those behaviors can be helpful not only in terms of seeing them in a more favorable light but also from the standpoint of having the people who are working with them feel more capable and confident,” Cohen said.

But changing the perception of those in the system is not the only benefit of heeding research at the intersection of neuroscience and child development, said Chapin Hall Executive Director Bryan Samuels.

Samuels, one of many child welfare leaders who helped contribute to the brief, said that child welfare agencies need to reconsider the last 20 years of the system’s child practices.

“Some of those are based in science, some are based on intuition, some are based on common sense,” Samuels said. “Today, with the new toxic stress information, it challenges some of that work and we need to create a space where states have the opportunity to rethink some of the things they do in the light of these new findings.”

Changing course doesn’t necessarily mean a costly expenditure of resources. Samuels said brain science has yet to be reflected in training materials, for example.

But making investments in other arenas of the child welfare field may yield benefits for the well-being of children in care.

“The place where this science has the greatest implications is where child welfare has spent the least amount of time thinking through and has invested the fewest resources,” Samuels said. “The logical place to go with this science is to the place where these kids spend most of their time, which is in a foster home or with relatives.”

“We don’t do much in child welfare in terms of helping people know how to parent an abused or neglected child. We just assume that foster parents can figure that out for themselves.”

The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a group that represents hundreds of service providers nationwide, is sponsoring a webinar on Thursday that will take a closer look at how to better integrate insights from brain science to practice, including looking at the Harvard brief.

The organization is already working toward aligning policies with brain science at 15 sites in the U.S. and Canada, thanks to its Change in Mind initiative.

It recently published a guide to brain science that it hopes will steer the development of policies that take into account the latest brain science.

That means investing more in initiatives like the FIND program that promotes better parenting practices for parents and caregivers, according to Change in Mind Director Jennifer Jones.

“The science is very clear — we know the why — but we’re inventing the how,” Jones said. “We’re inventing how we transform our policies and systems and our practices based on the neuroscience. We need to support the testing of new models as well as moving toward being evidence based.”

The mandate toward experimentation is echoed by Chapin Hall’s Samuels, who runs one of the country’s leading child welfare research centers.

“Brain science reminds we need to be able step back and acknowledge that the things we’re doing don’t work,” Samuels said. “And that doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t mean that we’re not trying. It means that we have often intervened because we needed to, not because we knew how to.”

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