The smallest victims of the Freddie Gray violence

The rioting that followed Freddie Gray's death affected even the smallest of city children.

The traumatic events that unfolded in Baltimore last week left us with numerous images that will shape how we remember, feel and continue to process this ordeal. These images involved primarily adults, young adults and teenagers. Not caught in most of the coverage, by contrast, were the youngest, most vulnerable witnesses: children under the age of three. These are young and careful observers, closely attuned to and affected by the events happening around them.

Many young children are left with impressions and feelings that will influence them for years to come, whether they exhibit fear or curiosity in the events today. The way parents and caregivers psychologically "hold" their children, and help them manage and process what they have seen and feel can have lasting results.

Reaction to the type of emotional and violent activity that took place in Baltimore is highly personal and subjective. But we are able to benefit from extensive research and a depth of knowledge on how the youngest observers process and experience these events. Unfortunately for many of the families affected by last week's riots, they're dealing with realities that could potentially and profoundly undermine their efforts to support their young child's healthy development.

For instance, there are nearly 222,000 children under the age of three currently living in Maryland, and 58 percent of them experience at least one risk factor that potentially impedes their development, from poverty to residential mobility to unemployed parents. In Baltimore, the overall child poverty rate is 29.4 percent — much higher than in the state as a whole. And one in five Baltimore children under age 5 lives in deep poverty. These children face real challenges to their positive development, without much of a boost to help overcome them.

These statistics shape a narrative that is daunting, one in which the obstacles parents must overcome to provide the children with the best start in life feel almost insurmountable.

If we're going to turn around the outlook for Baltimore's children, we have to change the lens through which we view the situation. Recognizing the enormous potential in our young children that healthy growth and development would unlock, will help guide us toward smart investments in programs and services that show significant returns for children, their families and society.

One such program is home visiting for young children and families. These dual generational programs have shown a range of benefits — from improving children's health and school readiness to enhancing parents' ability to support their children's development to improving family economic self-sufficiency. For every dollar invested in home visiting, the public realizes a savings of $1.80 up to $9.50.

Early Head Start, which serves families and children prenatally to age three, is another such program. A rigorous national evaluation of Early Head Start found significant impacts in language skills, social skills and behavior.

The Promise Heights Project is a program situated squarely in a neighborhood highly affected by the recent events in Baltimore. It provides an array of interventions to young children and families, including B'More for Healthy Babies, services for pregnant and postpartum women; and Parent University, parenting education for families with children up to five years old. Many of their services are integrated into Early Head Start, Head Start and "Judy Centers," Maryland's comprehensive early childhood centers. Particularly relevant for the current circumstance, they deliver trauma-informed services that facilitate healing for young children and families.

If we use the events in Baltimore as a way to ignite a serious discussion about investments to support its youngest citizens, we can change the way they experience traumatic situations and also build a strong foundation for them to succeed in school and in life. Of course, we must have a comprehensive strategy that encompasses economic development and support for older youth. But promotion of strong outcomes begins at birth. With programs like home visiting and Early Head Start, these children will have the benefit of knowing they are starting out on a positive trajectory for whatever type of challenges they may face. And Baltimore will show the nation the power and the promise we all know it has.

Brenda Jones Harden is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development & Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland College Park, and a board member of ZERO TO THREE. Matthew Melmed is the executive director of ZERO TO THREE, a national nonprofit committed to promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers.

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