Am beginning to think that I should move into the new field of paediatric neurology law blogging, as it seemed very popular last time. [Although I am going to have to work harder on titles if I have to do a fourth, because I’m running dry]
This is my third post on this issue.
The last one was here:-
Which was about the Wastell and White report suggesting that too much political weight is being placed on headlines of neuroscience research when the actual research is more fragile than the headlines would suggest.
You may recall that the thrust of that was whether the impression that is being disseminated that neuroscience is at one on the principle that neglect in early childhood can cause longstanding harm to children, possibly even irreparable harm in the first years of life, is a genuine one on which important decisions can rightly be taken, or whether there is a schism within neuroscience which might need resolution before we start constructing metaphorical housing estates on those foundations.
The key debate seems to be about plasticity of the brain in an infant – is that damage long-lasting and irreparable, or does the brain form new structures and overcome it (obviously ideally with the neglect ceasing and positive parenting being in place) ?
I don’t think anyone would argue that children suffering neglect is BAD, the issue here is whether science is now showing that it is FAR MORE BAD than we had previously believed.
As a result, a kind subscriber has sent me this new report “The Foundations of Life” compiled by Harvard University, which is firmly in the Family Justice Review camp, of neglect causing much greater and more irreparable harm than had earlier been understood.
My initial reading suggests that this is not new research, or commenting on fresh experiments or studies, but again a drawing together of existing research and formulating conclusions from it.
That report can be found here: –
There is a summary of essential findings, which I shall set out here.
(The analysis of whether those findings are made out from the research is a task beyond me, but some of my new readers who have lovely neurosciency brains will probably set to work on considering that).
Advances in molecular biology, and genomics have converged on three compelling conclusions:
Early experiences are built into our bodies.
Significant adversity can produce physiological disruptions or biological “memories” that undermine the development of the body’s stress response systems and affect the developing brain, cardiovascular system, immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls.
These physiological disruptions can persist far into adulthood and lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.
Messages for Decision-Makers
The biological sciences have two clear and powerful messages for leaders who are searching for more effective ways to improve the health of the nation.
First, current health promotion and disease prevention policies focused on adults would be more effective if evidence-based investments were also made to strengthen the foundations of health in the prenatal and early childhood periods.
Second, significant reductions in chronic disease could be achieved across the life course by decreasing the number and severity of adverse experiences that threaten the wellbeing of young children and by strengthening the protective relationships that help mitigate the harmful effects of toxic stress.
A New Framework for Early Childhood Policy and Practice
The following four interrelated dimensions offer a promising framework for innovative approaches to improving physical and mental well-being. The biology of health explains how experiences and environmental influences “get under the skin” and interact with genetic predispositions, which then result in various combinations of physiological adaptation and disruption that affect lifelong outcomes in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being.
These findings call for us to augment adult-focused approaches to health promotion and disease prevention by addressing the early childhood origins of lifelong illness and disability.
From the report itself, this is interesting – the suggestion that child abuse should start being treated as a public health issue, and treatment programmes designed and delivered.
For more than a century, child protective services have focused on issues re¬lated to physical safety, reduction of repeated injury, and child custody.
Now, recent scientific advances are increasing our understanding of the extent to which the toxic stress of abuse, neglect, or exposure to family or community violence can produce physiological changes in young children that increase the likelihood of mental health problems and physical disease throughout their lives.
Based on this heightened risk of stress-related illness, science suggests that all investigations of suspected child abuse or neglect should include a comprehensive assessment of the child’s cognitive, language, emo¬tional, social, and physical development, followed by the provision of effective therapeutic services as needed. This could be accomplished through regularized referrals from the child welfare system (which is a mandated service in each state) to the early intervention system for children with developmental delays or dis¬abilities (which provides services under an en¬titlement established by federal law).
Although the most recent federal reauthorizations of the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act both included requirements for establishing such linkages, sufficient funding has not been provided, and the implementation of these requirements has moved slowly.
The availability of new, evidence-based interventions that have been shown to improve outcomes for children in the child welfare system168 underscores the compelling need to transform “child protection” from its traditional concern with physical safety and custody to a broader, more science-based focus on health promotion and disease prevention.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken an important step in advancing this issue by promoting the prevention of child maltreatment as a public health concern.169,170
I remain in the dark as to whether the current path we are on, of policy decisions being taken, and perhaps individual ones too, on the basis of neglect being irreparably harmful to infants and that our timeframe for making decisions is much more narrow than previously believed, is the right one and that we have some mavericks suggesting otherwise, or whether the current trendy thinking on that is wrong and the naysayers are actually pointing out that this emperor has no clothes on.
I would like someone to find out. Or perhaps we lawyers just have an over-optimistic view of the social sciences, and think that there is a definitive answer out there to be found out (like there really is a definite number for the co-efficient of the expansion of brass and that every scientist in the field would agree on what the number is, and how you could prove it). Maybe there isn’t.
Perhaps the truth of the world of neuroscience is that we are still stumbling in the dark and that every theory is going to have its proponents and opponents.
In which case, we perhaps ought to know THAT, and not be treating the findings and theories of neuroscience as though they represent the final word on any given subject.