Growing Up study suggests low social service use among vulnerable children

Only one in five families whose toddlers were considered most at risk of vulnerability from birth accessed social support services in their first 1000 days of life.

The results in brief

  • Only 1 in 5 families with children in the high-risk group for vulnerability accessed social support services in the child’s first 1000 days of life
  • Early life vulnerability is resulting in poor health and behavioural outcomes for the children within their first 1000 days
    • Health impacts: Children who were exposed to persistently high vulnerability (children in the high-risk group at all three-time points – antenatal, 9-month and 2-years) were more likely to have experienced chest infections, and to have incomplete immunisations by the age of two years.
    • Behavioural impacts: Children who experienced a persistently high or an increase in vulnerability risk were more likely to show behavioural and emotional problems (measured using the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ)) when compared to those who were in the stably low vulnerability risk group
  • The most common risk factors were families living in an area of high deprivation, and having a mother who experienced regular financial stress or is on an income-tested benefit.
  • Traditional approaches of providing support by deprivation area to reduce downstream effects of vulnerability may not be accurately targeted. While living in a high deprivation area was one of the most common risk factors in early life for children, it was also the most likely risk factor to occur as a single risk.
  • Some family and environmental characteristics are more likely to be associated with persistence of hardship; these include having an unplanned pregnancy, less family and neighbourhood support, more relationship stress and being born outside of New Zealand.
  • Teenage motherhood often occurs together with other risk factors such as having no partner, living in a public rental and having incomplete secondary school education. This makes children of teenage mums likely to be at high risk of vulnerability.

Only one in five families whose toddlers were considered most at risk of vulnerability from birth accessed social support services in their first 1000 days of life, according to a new report on early childhood vulnerability, released today by the Growing Up in New Zealand study. These include services such as Child, Youth and Family; Whānau Ora; or well-established programmes such as Family Start; and Parents as First Teachers.

“Experiencing persistent exposure to adversity in early life has a negative impact on children’s health and behaviour. This impact is already obvious by the time these children are two years old,” explains Growing Up in New Zealand Director, Associate Professor Susan Morton from the University of Auckland.

“It is a real concern to see that the majority of families who are potentially most in need of support during their children’s early years are not connected to social service providers.”

“The information from the nearly 7000 families raises questions about how current support services are able to be targeted to those most in need, and challenges us to do better to enable support to reach our most vulnerable children from early in their lives.”

The study that follows almost 7000 children from before birth until adulthood utilised a set of twelve routinely available maternal and socio-demographic characteristics (or ‘risk factors’) measured from pregnancy onwards to evaluate the level of exposure to vulnerability over the first two years of a child’s life.

More than one in eight of the children experienced four or more of these risk factors at any time point (pregnancy, nine months or two years). They were classified as being highly vulnerable at that time point.

“Measuring exposure to vulnerability at multiple time points during the first two years of a child’s life allowed us to compare which of the risk factors were likely to be associated with persistent exposure to vulnerability rather than just exposure for a brief period of time,” says Dr Morton.

The most common risk factor experienced at any one-time point was living in a high deprivation area (1 in 4 of the cohort children), however, for many of these children, they were not exposed to any other of the 12 risk factors at the same time.

“We might need to rethink the traditional approach of targeting families based primarily on area-level deprivation measures,” says Dr Morton.

By contrast, other risk factors tended to cluster, for example: having a teenage mother tended to mean that children would also usually be exposed to maternal smoking, be likely to live in public rental, be reliant on an income-tested benefit and be living with a mother with no partner.

The longitudinal analysis demonstrated that over two-thirds of children in Growing Up in New Zealand experienced the same level of vulnerability in pregnancy as well as during their first nine months of life, although the specific risk factors they experienced did change in some cases.

One in ten of the cohort children were classified as highly vulnerable from pregnancy and throughout their first nine months of life. By the time these children were two years of age they were more likely to have experienced chest infections, and to have incomplete immunisations. They were also more likely to show behavioural and emotional problems when compared to those who were in the stably low vulnerability risk group.

“The knowledge that vulnerability is relatively stable and, in particular, rarely decrease during early life reinforces the need for early identification of the most vulnerable children. We can then provide their families with additional support even before they are born rather than waiting for problems to develop or be recognised sometimes well after birth,” says Dr Morton.

Future reports in the ‘Vulnerability and Resilience’ series will address how the exposure to vulnerability risk factors affects children’s cognitive outcomes, education, socialisation and behaviour as they grow older, and evaluate why some children seem more resilient to negative outcomes than others, despite growing up in family structures and neighbourhoods that appear comparably disadvantaged.

“Not all children who are exposed to multiple risk factors for vulnerability will have poor outcomes. The Growing Up in New Zealand study allows us to understand what characteristics of their parents, families, communities and environments are likely to promote resilience in the face of exposure to these risk factors. This knowledge can then inform the development of more effective programmes to optimise early life wellbeing and support good outcomes for all our New Zealand children,” says Dr Morton.

    The twelve risk factors used for defining vulnerability in the cohort:

    1. Maternal depression
    2. Poor maternal physical wellbeing
    3. Mother smoking regularly/daily during and after pregnancy
    4. Teenage pregnancy (Young maternal age)
    5. Mother with no current partner (Relationship status)
    6. Mother with no formal secondary school qualifications (Maternal education)
    7. Reporting highly stressful money problems (Financial stress)
    8. Living in a decile 9 or 10 NZDep2006 area
    9. Mother actively seeking work but not currently working (Unemployment)
    10. Living in public rental accommodation
    11. Being in receipt of an income-tested government benefit
    12. Having two or more persons on average per bedroom (Overcrowding)

    Download the report

    Report 6, Growing Up in New Zealand: Vulnerability Report 2 - Transitions in exposure to vulnerability in the first 1000 days of life (July 2015) (PDF)

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