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Doctoral affiliate Hubel studying risk factors of child maltreatment

The Early Head Start program aims to give young children exactly that. However, the program has fought a recurring battle against the maltreatment of those children by the same low-income families it seeks to assist.

In 2009, CYFS Doctoral Student Affiliate Grace Hubel began working as a mental health consultant with a local Early Head Start center in Lincoln, Neb. Through her interactions with families and conversations with staff, Hubel realized that the program’s children seemed especially susceptible to the neglect and abuse that research has linked with psychiatric disorders, poor communication skills and antisocial behavior.

“There’s certainly a systemic level of risk present in impoverished families, and I definitely experienced many kids crossing the line from being at-risk to becoming victims of abuse and neglect while in the program,” Hubel said. “Wanting to help those families is what interested me in maltreatment prevention.”

With those experiences as motivation, Hubel is now studying how Early Head Start services influence the risk and incidence of child maltreatment among participating families. Using secondary data gleaned from roughly 400 families with children under age 3, Hubel is examining the presence of common risk factors – including poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse and unemployment – before and during participation in the program. She is also using Nebraska court records to determine how these services and risk factors correlate with instances of maltreatment, the rehabilitation of abusive parents, and the outcomes of subsequent custody cases.

Hubel will also interview at least 10 parents of children currently participating in Early Head Start. She hopes to gain insights into which aspects of the program attract and retain families, while also garnering parents’ ideas on how to improve it.

Hubel believes the study, which is the first to investigate the association between maltreatment and Early Head Start, has the potential to offer valuable information for interventionists tasked with making countless tough calls when it comes to protecting children.

“I’ve seen that a lot in family service workers – just not knowing where to start or what would be most helpful. The program’s really comprehensive, so they try to provide a broad range of services,” Hubel said. “But if we can start to sort out which risk factors are most strongly related to occurrence of abuse and neglect, then I think we can teach early interventionists which are the most important to target. The reality is that you’re always going to be working with families at risk on multiple levels. I hope we can provide a little bit of information about where to start.”

Hubel’s study, “Identifying Risk for and Preventing Child Maltreatment in Early Head Start Families,” was funded by a Head Start Graduate Student Research Grant. CYFS Faculty Affiliate David Hansen serves as principal investigator on the project. The study is part of a parent project, “Examining the Impact of Family Violence and Parental Depression on the Behavioral and Emotional Functioning of Young Children in Low-Income Families,” for which CYFS Faculty Affiliate Mary Flood serves as principal investigator.