The Youngest Nomads: Testimony to Allegheny County DHS on Intervention for Homeless Children
The following testimony was given to the Office of Children, Youth, and Families of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services on Friday, August 3, 2012 at a hearing for their annual "needs based plan." OCD Policy Initiatives director, Ray Firth, asked that an initiative to systematically work on prevention and intervention for young homeless children be included in the plan.

The Youngest Nomads
Testimony Regarding the Needs Based Plan and Budget for 2013-2014

Office of Children, Youth and Families
Allegheny County Department of Human Services

This afternoon I would ask that you incorporate a systemic prevention and intervention initiative for infants, toddlers and preschoolers residing in DHS homeless housing programs in the Needs Based Plan.

These very young children represent half of the children in families who are homeless. But due to Federal and State policy, the homeless system is focused on the adult as the client. Expectations, funding, and program policies focus on the adult. Children’s needs are overlooked or are a secondary priority. If providers think of children, it is to ensure school-aged children are enrolled in school. Federal and state policy fail to reflect the growing body of scientific evidence that early influences—whether positive or negative—are critical to the development of young children’s brains and their lifelong health. In partnership with others, your office is well positioned to demonstrate to the Feds and State how to serve these children and families correctly. By so doing, you will reduce entry and reentry to the child protective services system.

Many families who are homeless already have many connections with the Office of Children Youth and Families, and other DHS services. Many parents have been in foster care themselves as children. Some have lost custody of one or more of their older children, or, as they enter a temporary housing program, are reunited with their children. As with many of your families,
substance use, behavioral health challenges, and domestic violence are intertwined with homelessness. This Needs Based Plan addresses the impact that trauma has on children and families. Trauma is a "fact of life" for young homeless children, as well as the school aged children who are homeless. Whether a toddler or 3rd grader, it is likely they already have a lifetime exposure to traumatic experiences as well as exposure to stressful and traumatic experiences while in a homeless housing program.

The Department of Human Services has been extremely aggressive and successful in obtaining HUD funding for families who are homeless. The housing providers are well-intentioned and hard-working but not experienced in addressing complex human service issues. They work with very limited resources and capacity, trying to meet the complex needs of an exceptionally challenging population. Housing program staffs recognize there is a systemic lack of focus on the youngest children and nearly all providers recognize that most or all young children in their care are delayed developmentally, and/or show behavioral or social challenges. Yet only 10% of these young children birth to five are screened for developmental delays, when it is likely that up to 50% of these young children will have major developmental delays.

The Needs Based Plan identifies many of the strengths of your program. If these initiatives are integrated with the homeless housing program and other DHS services, DHS has the potential to reverse the negative developmental trajectory that many of these children will otherwise experience. From CYF, these families would benefit from:
  1. The Family Team Conferencing initiative;
  2. The Educational Development model, if it were to be applied to the integration of DHS’s adult and child human service programs, and Pennsylvania’s early learning programs now managed by Dr. Barbara Minzenberg;
  3. The Quality Service Review. This is particularly relevant for families who are homeless in that it is intended to have a “big picture understanding and long term view of the child and family”;
  4. Evidence based interventions to address trauma.

Along with your interventions to address trauma among these children, the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) has provided extensive training for residential providers on trauma informed care that would benefit the homeless housing providers. OBH would also be a key partner in enhancing access to Early Intervention services.

Many providers who are not DHS contractors stand ready to work with you. They are meeting already to identify how to be of assistance as The Bridges group. This includes Maternal and Child Health programs and early childhood programs such as Healthy Start, the Allegheny County Health Department, Every Child, and the Early Head Start/Head Start programs.

In summary, I would ask that you incorporate in the Needs Based Plan a DHS and community initiative for infants, toddlers and preschoolers living in homeless families. These young children are at very high risk for poor outcomes. Community partners are ready, willing and able to work with you to address this need.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this afternoon.

Ray Firth
Policy Initiatives Director
Office of Child Development University of Pittsburgh