Providing Flint’s children with the services they deserved

In late January, President Obama pledged $80 million in federal aid to Michigan to stem the tide of the worst lead crisis in recent memory in Flint. This, coupled with an outpouring of hands-on support from community volunteers, millions of water bottles donated by companies, and financial support from wealthy donors — including singers Beyoncé and Cher, churches and other charitable organizations, has been heartening. It is testimony to our generosity, empathy, and “can-do” approach to challenges.

These funds and this focus, so far, have jumpstarted many efforts that will make a difference in Flint. Providing safe drinking water and key nutrients goes a long way toward halting additional lead absorption. Increasing the frequency of pediatric visits offers much-needed support for concerned parents and traces the rate at which children’s lead burdens are decreasing over time. Identifying volunteers who can visit Flint’s schools permits teachers to spend more time with lead-affected school-aged children.

But this is not enough.

{mosads}Until we integrate contributions like these with comprehensive intervention programs, designed to address the irreversible and long-lasting deficits in IQ, attention, language, and behavior caused by lead exposure, the help that the children of Flint so richly deserve will remain beyond reach.

Because their brains and nervous systems are so rapidly developing, fetuses, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to lead’s ravages. That is why the most effective interventions, especially in low-income communities like Flint, are ones that begin early and that coordinate a range of developmental supports. A recent policy brief from the Sackler Institute at The New York Academy of Sciences made this point forcefully, arguing that individual services (like teaching parenting skills at the pediatrician’s office, or providing access to safe water and healthy foods) do matter, but that what really makes a difference is integrating these in comprehensive and sustained developmental program. 

According to Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, Professor at Yale’s School of Public Health, “The benefits go beyond the individual–they extend to society as a whole. Children who receive integrated interventions grow up to be adults who are more likely to be productive participants in the workforce, who stay healthier than their counterparts who don’t receive integrated interventions, and ultimately use fewer governmental resources.”

Decades of evidence-based research provide a roadmap for where to begin in Flint, and it should begin immediately, with funding from federal, state, and local governments.

The comprehensive and sustained programming should include at least these three elements.

High-quality full-time early childcare programs.

The most essential component is high-quality, center-based developmental intervention programming that begins in infancy, that engage parents as their children’s ‘first and best teachers’, that are sustained throughout the preschool years, and that provide a central point of contact to facilitate coordination among families and among service providers.

Programs like Early Head Start, a federal program initiated in 1995 to serve low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers within their own communities have been especially effective, providing comprehensive early intervention with lasting benefits for children’s language, cognitive, social and emotional development.

The families of Flint are eager this, as evident by their engagement in parenting support programs administered through pediatric offices. But there are long waitlists for Head Start in Flint. Access to high-quality multi-faceted developmental programs like Early Head Start should be expanded immediately so every child can benefit. There is no time to lose.

Harness our nation’s strong service commitment.

In response to emergencies world-wide, the United States has consistently been at the forefront, dispatching early childhood professionals to establish culturally appropriate interventions for young children and their families. Closer to home, in response to teacher shortages in disadvantaged communities, creative initiatives including Teach for America and City Year have developed successful models for attracting talented recent college graduates to join a corps of their peers as teachers . It is time to harness these twin engines — experienced leadership in early childhood programming and young adults devoted to providing educational opportunities for young children – for the families of Flint.The federal government and the private sector could share the lead on this initiative.   


Flint may be the worst case of lead exposure in recent memory, but sadly it is not the only case and it will not be the last. If bold interventions are initiated in Flint, these may not only diminish the severity of the effects of lead in the children themselves, but may also serve as a rich foundation for developing policies about best practices in response to large-scale community-wide lead exposure. This will require tracing the services that children receive, the age at which they receive it, and their progress across time. It will also require permission for data sharing across agencies.  

Of course, this will be expensive, but as Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman points out, investing in infants and young children offers rates of return that far exceed the returns on investments initiated in adolescence and early adulthood.

And fortunately, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes Flint, has made a commitment to “… provide, on a long-term basis — and I mean decades — support for the kids who were poisoned.” We need more government officials like him taking that stand.

For the children in Flint, whose brain and behavioral development has been thwarted irreversibly and whose parents’ trust has been shattered, providing the gold standard of care is the very least we can offer.

Waxman is the Louis W. Menk professor in psychology and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow.


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