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Developmental Outcomes of Infants and Toddlers in the Child Welfare System

Carlo PanlilioBrenda Jones Harden, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Human Development, University of Maryland

Carlo Panlilio, PhD Student, University of Maryland (pictured)

Summary: The authors provide judges with tips and strategies to improve developmental outcomes for young children involved in the court system.


Judges serving in juvenile courts make daily decisions that affect children across their lifespan, particularly infants and toddlers (i.e., 0-3 years old). Infants and toddlers are maltreated and placed in foster care at higher rates than older children. Based on the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), 36% of children in the foster care system are comprised of infants and toddlers, compared to 19.7% of preschoolers and 31% of older children[1]. Due to the disproportionate numbers of infants and toddlers in child welfare, it is critical that judges understand how their judicial decisions impact the development of these children.

The infancy and toddler stages are considered sensitive periods of development, during which certain capacities are more readily shaped by children’s experiences[2]. In a context of compromised caregiving, such as maltreatment, infants and toddlers become more vulnerable to developmental challenges in the physical, cognitive, language, and social-emotional domains.

Specifically, maltreated infants and toddlers may show compromised physical growth, such as lower than normal height, weight, and head circumference[3]. Additionally, they are at higher risk for other developmental and behavioral needs, but have better access and use of services if placed in foster care[4].

Further, maltreated infants and toddlers may experience delays in cognitive development and subsequent school readiness[5]. An important contributor to cognitive and academic skill is executive functioning, the ability to organize, plan, attend, and regulate emotions. Language skill, with a sensitive period in the first two years of life, is highly predictive of literacy, school success, and behavioral functioning. Early exposure to maltreatment and placement instability may compromise executive functioning and language skills, and therefore long-term academic outcomes.

A critical social-emotional milestone of this stage is attachment, which is also a sensitive period in the first two years of life. Through secure attachments with consistent caregivers, children learn how to recognize and regulate emotions, as well as to maintain positive interpersonal relationships. Early adverse experiences, such as maltreatment, have been shown to increase the likelihood that children will have an insecure attachment to caregivers, and to negatively affect children’s capacity to process and regulate emotions[6], rendering them at risk for later mental health, behavioral, and relational difficulties[7].

In their roles as providers of legal oversight to child welfare cases, judges can undertake the following strategies[8]:

  • Learn about infant and toddler brain and overall development through linkages with scholars and practitioners;
  • Ensure that infants and toddlers are receiving regular pediatric care, and are linked to a medical home;
  • Mandate that infants and toddlers receive developmental assessments and appropriate referrals to early intervention services;
  • Recommend referrals to infant and toddler mental health intervention programs which can facilitate optimal social-emotional functioning of young children and caregivers;
  • Establish parent-child visitation plans that meet the developmental needs of infants and toddlers;
  • Promote enhancement of the caregiving environment, whether birth or foster families, to optimize children’s development.

Implementing such strategies allow judges to have a major influence on the positive developmental trajectories of maltreated children, and ultimately support their long-term healthy life outcomes.                                                             

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006). The AFCARS Report: Preliminary Estimate for FY 2010 (18). Retrieved from

[2] Knudsen, E. I. (2004). Sensitive periods in the development of the brain and behavior. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 1412-1425.

[3] Van IJzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Juffer, F. (2007). Plasticity of growth in height, weight, and head circumference: Meta-analytic evidence of massive catch-up after international adoption. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 28, 334-343.

[4] Stahmer, A. C., Leslie, L. K., Hurlburt, M., Barth, R. P., Webb, M. B., Landsverk, J., & Zhang, J. (2005). Developmental and behavioral needs and service use for young children in Child Welfare. Pediatrics, 116, 891-900.

[5] Nelson, C. A., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Marshall, P. J., Smyke, A. T., & Guthrie, D. (2007). Cognitive recovery in socially deprived young children: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Science, 318, 1937-1940; Jones Harden, B. & Whittaker, J. V. (2011). The early home environment and developmental outcomes for young children in the child welfare system. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1392-1403.

[6] Pollak, S. D. & Kistler, D. J. (2002). Early experience is associated with the development of categorical representations for facial expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99, 9072-9099; Shields, A. & Cicchetti, D. (2001). Parental maltreatment and emotion dysregulation as risk factors for bullying and victimization in middle childhood. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 30, 349-363.

[7] Shields, A. & Cicchetti, D. (2001). Parental maltreatment and emotion dysregulation as risk factors for bullying and victimization in middle childhood. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 30, 349-363; Jones Harden, B. & Whittaker, J. V. (2011). The early home environment and developmental outcomes for young children in the child welfare system. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1392-1403.

[8] Jones Harden, B. (2007). Infants in Child Welfare: A developmental perspective on policy and practice. Washington, DC: Zero to Three; Dicker, S. & Gordon, E. (2004). Ensuring the healthy development of infants in foster care: A guide for judges, advocates, and child welfare professionals. Washington, DC: Zero to Three; American Bar Association (2011). Young children in child welfare; A guide for judges. Washington, DC: American Bar Association; Smariga, M. (2007). Visitation with infants and toddlers in foster care: What judges and attorneys need to know. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

Author biographies:

Brenda Jones Harden is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development, University of Maryland College Park. She has worked more than 30 in the early childhood policy, practice and research arenas. Harden focuses on the developmental and mental health needs of young children at environmental risk, particularly those reared in high-risk poverty contexts and those involved with the child welfare system. An emphasis of her work is preventing maladaptive outcomes in these populations through early childhood intervention programs, particularly home visiting interventions. Harden is the author of numerous publications regarding vulnerable children and families, including chapters and articles on prevention programs for young children and families such as Early Head Start and home visiting programs. She is the author of the book Infants in the Child Welfare System: A developmental perspective on policy and practice, and is a co-author of the book Beyond Common Sense: Child welfare, child well-being, and the evidence for policy reform. She received a doctoral degree in developmental and clinical psychology from Yale University and a master in social work degree from New York University.

Carlo Panlilio is currently working on his PhD in human development at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to his studies, Carlo worked closely with Child Protective Services in providing psychotherapy for children after removal from their homes. He also served as clinical supervisor for a therapeutic foster home, as well as provided family therapy services to foster families and children in order to preserve placement. He has provided trainings and workshops to mental health providers, community agencies and CASA volunteers. Topics included common mental health diagnoses for children in foster care, therapeutic approaches and ethics.





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