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The compelling economic and medical case for early intervention

Early intervention with families of infant children living in high-risk child protection situations has a proven impact on outcomes and can dramatically reduce public spending on future offenders. This was the message to delegates at an NSPCC conference in London, who heard how offering holistic support to 116 mothers cost less than the money needed to fund three adult repeat offenders in the criminal justice system.

Speaking at the NSPCC’s All Babies Count Professionals Conference, Graham Allen, MP for Nottinghamshire North, pointed to the statistic to underline why he was “dedicated to breaking the inter-generational cycle of deprivation and unfulfilled potential”.

Mr Allen, who with former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith jointly authored a report in 2008 titled Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’, told the event: “The evidence base provided by neuroscience is equipping us with the skills and systems to make early intervention into a cultural model; an approach that can be replicated, rolled-out and allowed to stand or fall by its results,” Mr Allen said.

Mr Allen, who unusually for an MP chairs his Local Strategic Partnership, which has a stated aim of making Nottingham “the first early intervention city”, said “economic considerations” were crucial to securing widespread political support for the up-front investment needed to make the model a success. He felt progress was being made in ensuring politicians across the political spectrum were able to see the long-term savings that could be achieved from committing funds to early intervention work.

Intervening during the first year of a baby’s development is vital to improving a child’s life chances, the conference heard. Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters and who also runs the Oxford Infant Programme, explained: “The first 18 months of a child’s life are pivotal in terms of creating synaptic connections between neurons that ultimately play a large part in the regulation of serotonin and cortisol. These issues have a huge impact on the ability to stabilise behaviour in later life and to adequately deal with stress – early intervention is key in terms of securing the health of a child’s psychological immune system.”

Dr Charles H Zeanah, executive director of The Institute for Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane presented findings from his teams’ use of the New Orleans Intervention Model, an intensive assessment programme used to inform court decisions on whether maltreated children can be reunited with their birth family or should be placed for adoption with their foster family.

He told the NSPCC event: “Our most recent research revealed a 68% reduction in maltreatment recidivism for the same child returning to its parents and a 75% reduction in recidivism for a subsequent child of the same mother. We are delighted that the programme is now being adopted in Glasgow and if successful we hope it can be used in court assessments throughout the UK.”

The event, held at the Royal Society of Medicine, looked to build on the NSPCC’s All Babies Count report, published in November last year. Despite the upbeat message about the potential for early intervention, two local authority workers, speaking after the event, urged the NSPCC to forge tangible links between the research and practice. Expressing concern that the neurological underpinning of the debate may not be easily translatable when dealing with service users, one said: “Behind all of the academic jargon, is there a realistic way of using this information positively with families?”