Obama Budget: Congress Weighs Homeless Children's 'Toxic Stress'


After the Apontes lost their Long Island home and moved into a motel, Yolanda and her husband began worrying about their youngest son, who had turned 2 a few months earlier. At night, after tucking the three boys into the bed next to theirs, the parents would stay up for hours talking over their situation. They kept coming back to Noah: Would he always struggle to express himself? Or would he turn out like everyone else?

The other Aponte boys were talkative and sociable, but not Noah. When he wanted something from his parents, he would point or mumble. And he got frustrated easily. If he said "juice" and his mom heard "boots," he would ball his fists and pound them in the air. When anyone but his parents or brothers tried to talk to him (the other kids at the motel, the caseworkers at the shelter that the family eventually moved to), he clammed up. "He was very clingy to us -- always hidden right behind me or hidden right behind my husband," Yolanda Aponte said. "I could never go to the shower or use the bathroom or anything without him following me around."

Aponte never had doubts about the reasons for his slower-than-normal development and shyness. "If you take away the comfort and security of a kid, he's not going to learn, and he's going to close up and be intimidated," she said. Common sense, maybe, but there's a growing body of research that backs it up. And as Congress deliberates over President Barack Obama's new budget, advocates for the children of homeless and poor families are stressing the importance of programs that provide these kids with a measure of stability. If such programs are cut, they say, it could have harmful long-term consequences not just for kids like Noah, but for the country as a whole.

Over the past two decades, researchers have accumulated a mass of information about the effects of stress on young children. What they've found is that extreme and persistent stress can mold the architecture of the developing brain in lasting ways. A certain amount of stress is healthy, but kids who grow up poor are often exposed to circumstances that produce high levels of stress hormones, a condition known as toxic stress. As a 2008 paper by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard explained, "This condition literally interferes with developing brain circuits, and poses a serious threat to young children, not only because it undermines their emotional well-being, but also because it can impair a wider range of developmental outcomes including early learning, exploration and curiosity, school readiness, and later school achievement."

In other words, the biology of the brain dictates that children born into poverty are less likely to develop the skills they'll need to compete with peers later in life, making it more likely that they'll stay poor, and that their children will stay poor, and so on. In a January column by Nicholas Kristof that drew widespread attention to this phenomenon, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and a leader in the field, was quoted as saying there's such a thing as "a biology of social class disparities." Apparently the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, or at least between the 15 percent living below the poverty line and everyone else, is built into the brain.

In Washington on Thursday, several organizations participated in a congressional briefing on the subject, focusing on homeless children in particular. From 2000 to 2009, the number of children living in poverty in the U.S. increased by 33 percent, to more than 15 million, and by some estimates more than 1.6 million children are homeless. According to Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, the president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, a research and advocacy organization based in Massachusetts, more than half the country's homeless children are under 6. If these children are especially susceptible to the effects of toxic stress, it's partly because they tend to see the world through the eyes of anxious, distracted moms.

To ease the burden on those moms, Bassuk's group and others have developed programs and interventions and strategies. "We've found that with appropriate services that address basic needs the outcomes can really improve," Bassuk said. Even little things can make a big difference -- making sure that shelters have soft lighting and locks on bathroom doors, for example.

Many programs offer much more than that, and the Apontes benefited from one. After moving from the motel to the homeless shelter, the family received help from Sarah Benjamin, a teacher who runs the Mobile Outreach branch of the Parent-Child Home Program, a 10-year-old effort to strengthen the bonds between homeless parents and their children in Suffolk County, N.Y.

Benjamin would stop by the shelter once a week, and when the family was transferred to a new shelter -- suddenly and without explanation -- Benjamin went there, too. She would bring puzzles and picture books and spend time reading and playing with Yolanda Aponte and Noah. Every week, they'd go over the book from the week before. The idea was to build a comforting sense of routine, a buffer against the unpredictability and insecurity of homelessness, and according to Aponte, it worked. Noah began talking, she said. And perhaps that was partly because he could see that his mom was more relaxed. As Benjamin explained, "You learn how to behave by looking at someone else. If your mother is distracted to depressed or upset, you're not going to get a sense of security."

Benjamin was among those who spoke at the congressional briefing. A few days earlier, she talked about the insights afforded by her job. "Homeless moms and families -- they move a lot," she said. "They're not connected to their community. They don't have neighborhoods, they're at a loss. Even if we live next to people who we don't like, we have a sense of place, we know where we live. When you don't have that, it really affects you."

"And meanwhile," she added, "they have young children who are growing up whose brains are developing. They need a protective time when they can nurture and bond with their child."

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