The early years of New Jersey’s youngest residents are crucial to childhood growth and development, yet some of the state’s 310,285 children under age 3 face challenges that threaten their potential to succeed and thrive, a new report has found.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s new Babies Count report, which piggybacks on data from the organization’s Kids Count report, details health, financial, childcare, trauma and racial disparity issues that affect families and babies both in the short-term and long-term.

“Our babies are just starting out in life and already have the odds stacked against them,” said Cecilia Zalkind, Advocates president and CEO. “By targeting this age group, policymakers and state leaders have an opportunity to change the trajectory and lead babies on the pathway to a healthy and productive future.”

About 1 in 3 infants and toddlers lived in households below the federal poverty level, which experts say can hurt their potential for achievement and employment later in life.

According to the report, children younger than 3 represented 18 percent of all children in the state’s child protection system in 2017. Young black children represented a third of all protection cases, despite accounting for only 14 percent of all children under 3.

Karen DeRosa, director of community development at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, said cases sometimes stem from a lack of access to supportive services for families with young children.

In fiscal year 2018, 31 percent of the 657 children served by CASA in Atlantic and Cape May counties were 3 years of age or younger.

“Of course, the increase in reported drug abuse in our region does not help keep families together or young children safe,” DeRosa added.

Some other alarming findings in the report included information on cases of abuse and neglect, and racial disparities in birthing outcomes and infant mortality.

In 2016, 10 out of 17 child deaths from abuse and neglect happened to children under age 3.

Dr. Magna Dias, medical director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network at AtlantiCare, said there has been a big push to get health care providers and others trained in not only recognizing the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma, but risk that can lead to trauma.

“We’re shifting from looking at identifying kids being abused and taking them out of the home, which is still important, to identifying the protective and risk factors so that we can support families before anything happens in the first place,” Dias said.

Dias said the hospital does education on the ‘Period of Purple Crying’ to teach parents how to cope with periods of excessive and unpredictable crying and needs from their infants.

The education and tools can help decrease instances of exhaustion and frustration among parents who may then lash out or make an impulsive mistake that may hurt their child and lead to permanent injury or death from things like shaken baby syndrome, she said.

Screening mothers for postpartum depression also can help mothers get well and prevent abuse or neglect to babies that sometimes comes as a result, Dias said.

Naomi Jones, senior director of outpatient services with Jewish Family Service and child trauma specialist, said the benefits of therapy and counseling even for children as young as 2 can improve development and decrease chances of behavioral issues later in childhood and adulthood, and parents or caregivers are not always aware of that.

“People think that because they’re young, they’ll forget and don’t need therapy to work through it,” she said. “If they don’t get help, they may have some issues when they’re a couple years older.”

Social and health outcomes differed among several groups of people. New Jersey infants and toddlers are more diverse than the adult population—57 percent of children under 3 are babies of color, the report showed.

Black babies born to black mothers were more likely to receive late prenatal care, be born with low birth weight or die before they reached 1 year old, Zalkind said, which is why some health providers have created programs and health services aimed at people who might struggle to get help otherwise.

Help could come in the form of healthy eating and housing assistance; help with finding licensed child care centers, of which only 12 percent had prices that met low-income subsidy rates for infant care; and income assistance.

“This is an incredible time of growth for babies, but the data shows that the critical supports needed to help families with young children are difficult to access or in short supply,” Zalkind said.

For the full Babies Count report, see acnj.org

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Staff Writer

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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