Ten years ago, when Wendie Klapper opened the Parent-Infant Center that she directs at the Child and Family Institute of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, she received, she says, one referral every few months. Now the pace is seven or eight referrals a day. Many of them are from city foster care workers requesting Klapper’s specialty—infant-parent dyadic therapy—an intervention that a few years ago few city workers knew existed.

As recently as three years ago, Dorothy Henderson, director of early childhood trauma services at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, struggled year to year to keep modest funding for infant mental health services off the city’s budget chopping block. This year, for the first time, that money has been baselined in the city’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget. And Henderson is knee-deep in two new projects for babies in the child welfare system using money newly available from the State Office of Children and Family Services and from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). “I’m a good example of how things are changing,” she says.

City government’s sudden, surging interest in early childhood social emotional development—-what we’re calling “the toddler takeoff”—is unmistakable. It’s of a piece with a rising national awakening demonstrated, for example, by President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pitches for supporting early childhood education.

At the local level, the toddler takeoff is evident in a variety of ways—not least in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s focus on pre-k education in his 2013 mayoral election campaign and in his first months in office. It’s also on display in the public service subway ads urging parents to “Talk to Your Baby,” which were unveiled at a high-profile press conference featuring Hillary Clinton and New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray. It’s the subject of bi-monthly sessions of the Children’s Cabinet, where heads of city agencies brainstorm how to better meet young kids’ developmental needs. It’s manifested by the addition to city agencies of top officials with backgrounds in early childhood development—including George Askew, the founder of Docs for Tots, now at the Department of Health, and Andrea Goetz, previously director of early childhood mental health at University Settlement, now an assistant commissioner at ACS, where she is heading up a taskforce focused on children aged 0-3.  

It’s also apparent in new city funding earmarked for young kids’ emotional needs. In the budget for Fiscal Year 2016 that was adopted last month, City Hall earmarked at least XXX TK millions of new dollars intended to support the social and emotional health of children ages 0-3. (We say “at least” because the budget doesn’t specifically identify every dollar going to early childhood development, and even budget mavens who agree that funding is up aren’t sure by how much.) While past city programs for toddlers typically focused on issues of physical health and safety, today social-emotional development—what some refer to as “infant mental health”—is squarely on the radar. 

Nevertheless, those involved in the toddler takeoff acknowledge they are, in many respects, flying blind. In interviews with dozens of city officials, advocates, program directors and clinicians, the staff at the Center for New York City Affairs heard repeated examples of agencies working on new projects and policies regarding young kids with little knowledge of others doing similar work. 

The common refrain: Silos.

“Things are still siloed because the funding streams are siloed,” says the Jewish Board’s Henderson. 

Rami Metal, chief of staff for Councilman Stephen Levin, who chairs the Council’s Committee on General Welfare, agrees. “Right now we’re siloed and no one knows what’s going on,” he says. 

“Here you have this incredible monolith of UPK but after that nobody knows what the hell is going on,” adds Shelby Miller, principal of High Impact Partnering, which consults with social service organizations. “There is a large gaping hole of what the city’s stance is on 0-3.”

That’s why The Center for New York City Affairs has created this new web report: To start piecing together a cohesive picture of the city’s efforts and goals in early childhood social and emotional development. In an effort to show how all these initiatives fit together, we’ve organized them into three categories: “Reaching Kids,” “Training a Workforce” and “Treating Trauma.”  

At the outset, this caveat: While we’ve striven to be comprehensive, we’ve probably been defeated in that effort by the very fragmentation bedeviling policies and programs in this field.

We have, however, made a good faith effort to identify and describe the key new city partnerships and initiatives that aim to support the social emotional development of young children. In the months ahead, as we learn more, we’ll add to and elaborate on these accounts. We also take on the proverbial elephant in the room: What will it take to connect these individual programs and policies and form what Bob Frawley, co-chair of the state Early Childhood Advisory Committee and former deputy director of the New York State Council on Children and Families, describes as “a comprehensive system of support” for the young children?