Children: Invest Early

Posted Sept. 23, 2008, at 5:52 p.m.

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe says 20 percent of the lawyers who work in his office effectively spend their days working on child protection matters — trying to remove children from abusive, neglectful homes, or working to get parents back on track so they can keep their kids. It’s what he calls “remedial work,” essentially fixing problems that might have been avoided in the first place. If you consider that several other lawyers in his office spend their time prosecuting accused murderers, the cost of that “remedial work” looms even larger.

Attorney General Rowe was in Bangor recently, touting a Maine initiative to call attention to the fiscal wisdom — not to mention the moral imperative — of investing in early childhood development. The arguments in favor of those investments are overwhelmingly logical and compelling. The Legislature created an Early Child Task Force, which has evolved into the Child Growth Council, which Mr. Rowe hopes will have the clout of the Maine Economic Growth Council.

The council wants to persuade the public and elected officials that money spent on young children is money saved; saved on special education costs, police and court costs, health care costs, substance abuse costs and lost productivity costs. Greater awareness is an important first step. But the council should go further and identify two or three legislative goals for the coming session and give legislators the opportunity to act on them. Those goals might relate to daycare, parenting education, and nutrition. The council will likely find many sympathetic legislators who will respond to the opportunity to act.

Elected officials often are not keen on spending money on programs whose results won’t be documented for 10 years, if at all. But the evidence in favor of investing in children in the first five years of life is undeniable.

Consider the brain: 85 percent of brain development occurs by age 3, and during these years, neurological connections are formed, laying the foundation for intellectual, emotional, social, moral and physical development. Forces which negatively affect brain development include unstable and inconsistent adult relationships, lack of stimulation, exposure to family violence and substance abuse.

Consider our current investment strategy in light of the early brain development facts: preschool, day care and early education workers earn on average $20,000, while kindergarten-through-grade-12 educators earn $43,000 on average and higher education professionals earn on average $60,000.

Mr. Rowe said research shows that 5 percent of children are diagnosed at birth or in very early childhood with learning disabilities. Yet by the time they get to school, 15 percent need special education services, at an annual cost of $300 million. With just 70,000 children under age 5 in Maine, this population segment is manageable. Keeping alive these children’s full potential is critically important.

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