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Foster care can give neglected, abused infants better chance for healthy future

RELATED: Prescott mom says foster daughter 'easy to love'

Every baby’s arrival should be as heralded as the latest English royal infant born this week.

Yet the reality is that far too many infants born in this state are not so cherished. No royal trumpeters announce their births, and they aren’t cradled in the bosom of a nurturing family.

The Arizona Department of Child Safety last year reported almost 15,000 children are living in out-of-home placements; more than 1,100 of those are infants 1 year old or younger, a critical phase of development not to be underestimated, according to local and national child welfare and counseling experts. The bulk of children in foster care as of last year were between the ages of 1 and 5 with 84.3 percent removed from their birth parents because of neglect, the report stated.

Neglect or abuse of infants, and removal from their homes, occurs four times as often in this state as any other age child, which aligns with national statistics, according to Rebecca Ruffner, founder and executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona headquartered in Prescott Valley. About 41 percent of children in foster care are younger than 5, she said.

So the best hope for these babies is to be placed with relatives or loving strangers able, even on a short-term basis, to answer basic needs and forge key bonds so the baby’s brain makes the proper networks required for later in life, said Ruffner and other child welfare experts.

Infants require early, positive attachments for healthy growth, experts assure. Even short-term neglect, or witnessing abuse not aimed at them, can reverberate through their lives, they said.

For many years, foster parents were discouraged from becoming attached to babies placed in their care, whether it was for a few days or several months; some cases can take a year or more, Ruffner said. That advice has proven to be erroneous, she said.

“We now tell them to fall in love,” Ruffner said. “Nourish and nurture them every day so they feel safe so they can heal and thrive … Be emotionally available so they attach with you.”

Babies who are unable to make those early attachment are far more likely to suffer with impaired physical and emotional development, she said.

National child welfare experts and advocates have debunked the theory that because babies can’t remember their earliest moments they will thrive once removed from a chaotic, dangerous situation. The truth is that a baby’s early experiences are imprinted on their brains and can have an immense impact on how they grow, they said.

So how babies are treated in the child welfare system matters more than some might suspect, Ruffner said.

Some 15 years ago, Prevent Child Abuse Arizona proved the backbone of an effort to treat infants and young children in foster care differently than older children and teens because of their unique needs, Ruffner said. A push was made to arrange for more regular court proceedings so as to come up with the best, and most expeditious, long-term placement plan for these children, she said.

For a baby or young child to be removed from their home of origin, and then later be removed from a foster family, or multiple ones, can induce its own trauma, Ruffner said. The child might come to wonder why they should ever “trust a grownup,” she said.

In January 2004, the agency created the “Best for Babies” program that meets monthly with state authorities, mental health care professionals, child welfare advocates and foster parents to promote what is best for babies in foster care. The program offers resources and supports to those in the trenches, including foster parents.

“Fostering babies requires 24/7 care. It is exhausting to take care of a child under age 1,” Ruffner said. “It’s just constant.”

Add to that the demands of a complex, cumbersome foster care system that can frustrate parents who simply want to provide a safe, loving home for a needy child.

Though foster parent can be the key link to enabling reunifications to occur, Ruffner said the need exceeds the availability.

At a recent “Best for Babies” workshop, facilitator Meghan Hays Davis, a family therapist at West Yavapai Guidance Clinic, was clear that early trauma manifests itself in childhood behaviors. All of a baby’s experiences — “the good, the bad and the ugly” — play a role in establishing brain patterns that impact who they will become in their later years.

“There may be a lot of talk about survival of the fittest, but really it is survival of the nourished,” Davis said.

The “Best for Babies” program is all about creating strong community collaborations that embrace individuals willing to take on such roles, Ruffner noted.

“If a baby can form a secure attachment with their foster parents, there are opportunities for the baby to develop normally,” Ruffner said.

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