Introducing the Baby & Toddler Takeoff

Ten years ago, when Wendie Klapper opened the Parent-Infant Center that she directs at the Child and Family Institute of Mount Sinai 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.

Here you have this incredible monolith of UPK but after that nobody knows what the hell is going on ... There is a large gaping hole of what the city’s stance is on 0-3.

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 help keep modest funding for infant mental health services off the city’s budget chopping block. Now, that money is baselined in the projected budget for Fiscal Year 2017. 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 “baby & toddler takeoff”—is unmistakable. It’s in line 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 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 heads up a task force 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, which was adopted in June, City Hall earmarked at least $15 million for new efforts—all but one launched since FY14— that are 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.) That money represents a new and significant investment.

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. 

Right now we’re siloed and nobody knows what’s going on.

Nevertheless, those involved in the baby & 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. We've also heard frequently how this lack of cohesion is hampering the impact of these new policies and programs.

The common refrain: silos.

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

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 report looking at relevant city and state efforts, most that have launched in the last two years. We want to start piecing together a cohesive picture of the city’s initiatives and goals in early childhood social and emotional development. In an attempt to show how all these initiatives fit together, we’ve organized them into three categories: “Reaching Kids,” “Building 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 state and city partnerships, initiatives and expansions 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 will also take on the proverbial elephant in the room: What will it take to connect these individual programs and policies to 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 young children?