As Cohn put it, the results revealed a clear pattern: "Orphans who went to foster homes before their second birthday often recovered some of their abilities. Those who went to foster homes after that point rarely did."
Again, adverse experiences don't just hurt feelings; they engrave themselves in the bodies and cells of young children. According to a 2011 article in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, "Children who spent their early years in the state-run Romanian orphanages have shorter telomeres than children who grew up in foster care ... Telomeres are buffer regions of non-coding DNA at the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of protein-coding DNA when cells divide." The article notes that stress can cause telomeres to shorten and that shorter telomeres "are associated with a raft of disease in adults from diabetes to dementia."
Cohn laid it out pretty clearly, "Childhood adversity can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head. And after the age of 2, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years. This is a revelation with profound implication -- and not just for the Romanian orphans."
West Virginia does not, thank God, warehouse and neglect unwanted infants by the thousands. We do, however, have many young children who receive care at least some of the time from someone who isn't a relative and the quality of some of that care probably isn't top rate. For that matter, no doubt some of the care provided by relatives is nothing to write home about.
More to the point, there are many children growing up in poverty. While not every child damaged by adverse experiences is poor and not all poor children have adverse early childhood experiences, poverty increases the odds -- and not in a good way. However, serious adversity in those early years can set up a chain reaction of low academic performance, future poverty, mental health issues, violent tendencies, addiction, etc.
Fortunately, there are some fairly easy interventions that have been shown to help young children through this critical period. These can be as simple as having a trained nurse or social worker visit young families. Ideally, this would happen from pregnancy to early childhood and the outreach worker would develop a relationship with the family, offering support, coaching and advice to the parent or parents. This should be an option for all new families. Improving the quality of child care and ensuring a stimulating, caring environment is another tack.
This is clearly an area where the investments lag behind the science. In 2010, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute published a report titled Public Investment in Children's Early and Elementary Years (Birth to 11). It found that the nation invested a little over $4,000 per year in infants and toddlers. By kindergarten or pre-K, the figure was around $6,700 and in the elementary range it jumped to over $10,700.
I'm not suggesting that kids over 2 are getting too much attention. But all the research shows we would do extremely well to put more into the front end, especially those first two years. The payoffs are much higher and we can help avoid a lot of future harm and heartbreak.
Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.