By Becky Blacklock
As I begin my tenure as a VTAEYC Exchange fellow I hope to explore the state of health and development for our state’s young children and families, taking this occasion to also seek programs, research, and opportunities within our state and beyond that are actively working to improve the support and interventions available to families and children facing adversity and needing connection. It is my hope that this inquiry will inform and inspire our own communities, through the examples shown, to strengthen the outlook for successful health and development of our young children and allow us to engage in sharing pathways toward building strong and secure communities.
I have worked as an early childhood educator for over a decade and I am a mother of two young children. As a native Vermonter I have always been invested in the strength of our communities. I hope that you will join me in this critical dialogue about how we can create communities that value and prioritize the success of our vulnerable young children.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
I grew up on a dairy farm in Addison County, Vermont. My childhood days were spent wandering through corn fields, rummaging through my father’s copious garden and bike riding all about town. My home was neighbored by other small farms. All of the adults knew and supported each other and we as farm children were able to play together on the quiet country roads and visit each other freely.
My mother toted me along for all of her social visits. Her dear friends had children of their own and with those children I explored curiosities and played. My friendship bucket always felt full.
I had an amazing pediatrician growing up. At every visit he taught me a magic trick and he always gave me his focused attention. My sharings never went unheard or my queries unanswered. I wept at his passing a few years ago.
My experience with early childhood education was nothing short of extraordinary. I attended a small, in-home program that was abundant with literature, theater, food and play. And then there was the sewing. To this day I love to sew; especially clothing for my children. I still keep my bunny pillow, sewn for every child that attended that wonderful program, safely in my box of childhood treasures.
My family certainly was not affluent. We faced many financial challenges as a struggling, small farm. However, our wealth lay elsewhere and all around us. We were rich in community. While our memories can have a habit of changing to a rose colored lens over time, I am certain of the belonging I felt.
Expectation and Realizations
The experiences shared above were heavy driving factors as to why my partner and I decided to start our family and raise our children in Vermont. I desired the same sense of freedom and community for my children. What I had not realized was how much had changed since my own childhood a few decades ago.
I was the first in my close peer group to have a child. As I grappled with my new role of motherhood I often felt left apart from those whom I had grown to confide in. The succession of months that followed were challenged by tough recovery from birth, feeding challenges, food intolerances, and far too little sleep. Feelings of insecurity and fragility crept in as I wasn’t sure where to turn. Thankfully, family connection led us to our astounding pediatrician and I began to learn how to move forward. Still, the disconnect from my community weighed heavily and remained through the birth of my second child.
I held tight to the belief that as my children grew and entered preschool I would find a new community and build a sense of connection for myself and our family. As an early childhood educator myself, I should have been more prepared for the struggle I faced in finding an opening at a quality program.
When after much searching we finally found the program just right for our family and lucked into a placement, I did begin to feel a sense of relief and excitement about the community I imagined encountering. As quickly as my excitement grew, it was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The place where my family began to experience support and connection was turned completely upside down. Curbside drop-offs, no longer engaging in the classroom, and continually worrying about exposure was a far distant reality from the treasured days of my own preschool experience. I hardly had a chance to interact with other parents and my children were fearful.
As the pandemic carried on and my family grew weary through job loss, illness, and insecurities we had not been prepared to face; I again did not know where to turn. The one thing I did feel sure of was that my family’s adversities were not singular to us.
Too many were struggling prior to the pandemic and now that struggle had been amplified. Feeling overwhelmed by the longevity of the collective fear and uncertainty left in our communities by the Covid-19 pandemic, the same question percolated in my mind, “what does this mean for our children?”
Vermont’s Early Childhood Community Today
To quell my need for answers I turned to two places I knew would give insight: Building Bright Futures’ The State of Vermont’s Children: 2021 Year in Review and the 2021 Kids Count Data Book: State Trends in Child Wellbeing by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The snapshots I share today address only some of the current challenges facing young children and families. The information derived from the aforenamed references will inspire further investigations during my time as a VTAEYC Fellow. I hope you will feel enticed to dig deeper into these reports as a self-exploration of our early childhood community in Vermont.
What we know about Vermont’s Children today
Basic Needs Security:
- As of 2019, the population of Vermont children aged nine and under was 53,821. Of those children aged six and under, 35.7% lived under the Federal Poverty Level of $25,750 for a family of four.
- 41% of Vermont children under the age of six living in a single parent home with a female as the head of household live under the Federal Poverty Level.
- In 2019, 1 in 8 children in Vt lived in food insecure households. 42% of those children were likely not eligible for Federal Nutrition Programs.
- The number of homeless families in Vermont served by the Family Supportive Housing Program through the Vermont Department for Children and Families increased between 2020 and 2021. In 2020 the program served 201 families with 289 children, while in 2021 the program served 327 families and 608 children.
- Approximately 24 infants per 1000 live births in Vermont are born with a diagnosis of drug withdrawal syndrome. This number has decreased from the 2014 peak rate of 35.7 infants per 1000 live births.
- Encouragingly, 96% of children aged 9 and under have some form of health insurance and 89% of children under the age of six have seen a healthcare provider within the last year.
- There is an increasing trend over time in the identification and diagnosis of behavioral, emotional, mental health and developmental conditions for Vermont’s children. Between 2016 and 2018, 8.3% of children aged 3 to 5 received a diagnosis. This number increased to 12.2% during the 2018 to 2022 timeframe.
- 13.5% of Vermont children under the age of 9 have two or more Adverse Childhood Experiences; which serves as one of the most common indicators used to measure exposure to toxic stress and adversity.
- Between 2020 and 2021, 431 children in Vermont ages 0 to 2 and 333 children ages 3 to 5 were in the Department for Children and Families Protective Custody.
While some of the numbers and statistics are difficult to read, it is also important to hold this information in respect to how children and families are faring across the United States. When Vermont’s over-all factors of child well-being across four domains (economic well-being, education, health and family, and community) are compared nationally, we see that Vermont children are faring far more positively than most, with a high-ranking of 4th out of our fifty states. Considering that 35.7% of our youngest children are living under the Federal Poverty Level, it is staggering to think of the implications of this data for children across our country. This upward trend in ranking holds true for much of the northeastern region of the United States with five out of the top ten states hailing from this area.
What does this all mean? It shows that Vermonters have been working hard for each other and we must continue to do so. Building strong communities of support is necessary to counter and prevent the adversities that families and children are facing. We all have the power to make an impact; for one child, one family, one classroom, one neighborhood. When that effort is banded together, in an inclusive community, where the voices of parents and children, educators, policymakers, practitioners, and other agents acting for positive child health and development are truly heard; the tides of change will come. It is said that it takes a village; I hope through the VTAEYC Exchange we can share, build and nurture our village together.
Additional Resources, Supports, and Opportunities
Children’s Literature on Community: