A Need for a Comprehensive Continuum of
Support from Birth to Adulthood
Children and families do not come in pieces or neat packages that fit one or
another “program” or “strategy.” They are a complex amalgam of biological potential
and environmental realities, of culture and family and community role models, of
assets and risks. Analyzing causes and effects, and understanding the links among
all these factors, requires separating them into subject areas, systems or knowledge
areas. That is how data are gathered and kept, professionals are trained, programs
are funded, budgets are made and services administered. But we must not lose sight
of the whole child.
Like an insurance company’s actuarial chart, it is possible to predict from “risk
factors” the likelihood of a child ending up stuck in the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.
Much research and Cass’s and Curry’s case studies show major risk factors to be:
- poverty, especially extreme poverty;
- family composition where single parents, teenage parents, alcohol- or substance-abusing parents, a parent in prison, a parent abandoning the home—all predict increased delinquency;
- lack of health care, from prenatal care for pregnant women to preventive screening for children and youth of all ages to detect illnesses that block learning,hearing, seeing or concentrating;
- babies born at low birthweight, which is a risk factor for later physical, developmental and learning problems;
- abuse or neglect during childhood that goes unnoticed or untreated and fueled by poverty;
- foster care placements when families break down (especially in families not related to the children) risk abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, low self-esteem, anger and poor social relationships;
- poor school quality where not reading at grade level, failing or acting out are met with police intervention, and suspensions or expulsions leading to dropping out altogether;
- few timely and quality mental health program interventions in communities to provide care in a timely manner to prevent or interrupt negative behavior or remediate problems causing children to get into trouble;
- the juvenile justice system which cements many children’s sense of hopelessness and offers too few positive programs, too late, to change the Pipeline’s trajectory;
- and throughout all these major risk factors is the disparate treatment of children of color.
Research also shows that if a child has one or a few of these risk factors, while
potentially harmful, there’s a good chance that the child’s resiliency and some intervention
by a teacher, a counselor, a mentor, a relative, a pastor or some other adult
offering encouragement, assistance and guidance can save that child from falling into or
staying in the Pipeline. CDF’s Beat the Odds celebrations of and scholarships for
children overcoming unbelievable obstacles attest to the power of one caring adult in
a child’s life. But a young child exposed to six or more of these risk factors is ten times
as likely to commit a violent act by age 18 as one who experiences only one or a few
risk factors. In a hospital nursery, behind the glass of newborns in 2001, that one in
three Black boy babies and one in six Latino boy babies will end up in the Pipeline
and in prison is a national tragedy. Unless it is addressed head on, it will disempower the
Black and Latino communities and undermine family stability and child socialization.
The challenge for each of us and for the nation is to prevent it—for preventable it is.