Most vulnerable children not getting the help they need - study

The study is following almost 7000 children from pregnancy through to adulthood.

The study is following almost 7000 children from pregnancy through to adulthood.

Children most in need of help are the least likely to access support services in their first three years, a new study says.

The report on early childhood vulnerability was released on Friday by the Growing Up in New Zealand study from the University of Auckland.

The longitudinal study is following almost 7000 children from pregnancy through to adulthood.

For this aspect of the study, risk factors were measured from pregnancy onwards to evaluate the level of exposure to vulnerability in the first two years.

Engagement with services including Child, Youth and Family, Whanau Ora and Family Start, was also monitored.

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, the study found.

The director of Growing Up in New Zealand, Associate Professor Susan Morton, said she impact of constant exposure to adversity had a negative impact on children's health and behaviour which became obvious by the time they were two years old.

"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."

More than one in eight children experienced four or more risk factors at the marker points of pregnancy, nine months, and two years. Accordingly, they were classified as highly vulnerable at those time in their lives.

Morton said measuring the exposure to vulnerability at multiple time points meant it was possible to compare which risk factors were likely to be associated with persistent exposure to vulnerability rather than just exposure for a brief period.

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The researchers found a lack of connection between services was leading to more vulnerability. They recommended more evaluation to assess take-up rates of programmes once they were implemented.

The most common risk factor was "living in high deprivation", but a surprising finding was that many of those in high deprivation were not exposed to any other of the risk factors at the same time.

Researchers said the traditional approach of providing support by deprivation area might not be accurately targeted.

"We might need to rethink the traditional approach of targeting families based primarily on area-level deprivation measures," Morton said.

Other risk factors tended to cluster, though. Having a teen mother tended to mean children would usually be exposed to maternal smoking, living in a public rental, reliance on a benefit and living with a single mother.

Other risk factors that were more likely to be associated with persistence of hardship included having an unplanned pregnancy, less family and neighbourhood support, more relationship stress and being born overseas.

By the time these children were two years old, they were more likely to have incomplete immunisations and to have experienced chest infections. They were also more likely to show behavioural and emotional problems when compared to those who were in the low vulnerability risk group.

This reinforced the need for early identification of the most vulnerable children to provide the support the families weren't getting, Morton said.

As the children in the study get older, the series will move to examining how their exposure to vulnerability risk factors affect cognitive outcomes, education, socialisation and behaviour.

Researchers also want to see why some children who are exposed to multiple risk factors remain resilient to negative outcomes.

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

1. Maternal depression

2. Poor maternal physical well being

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)

 - Stuff

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