Amber was living in a garage in Fruitland, Idaho with her two young children. Because of her unstable living situation, she was at risk of having her children put in foster care. Amber was fortunate to connect with her local Head Start program. She enrolled and quickly got help finding proper housing. Through Head Start, she received critical counseling services. She and her children are no longer at risk of being separated.

Many Idaho parents with infants and young children face similar challenges which, if not addressed early, put them at risk of family separation. Infants and young children separated from their parents and put in foster care can suffer learning, health and behavioral setbacks that last a lifetime. Amber’s story is one of thousands across Idaho where Head Start has empowered families.

Head Start is the nation’s high-quality leader in early childhood education. Head Start is also a whole family program, helping families build strength, confidence and skills to move from dependency to self-sufficiency. Through home visiting, family goal setting, mental health assistance, parenting classes and much more, Head Start keeps families together.

Locally, the Western Idaho Community Action Network Head Start, the Community Council of Idaho Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Friends of Children and Families operate centers in Canyon, Payette, Owyhee, Washington, Elmore and Ada counties.

Amber’s Head Start experience keeping her family together is supported by recent research. A 2017 study by Sacha Klein at Michigan State University found that participating in Head Start may help prevent young children from being placed in foster care. Klein found that kids up to age 5 in Head Start were 93% less likely to end up in foster care than kids in the child welfare system who had no type of early care and education. She also examined multiple forms of early care and education and found that Head Start was the only one to guard against foster care placement.

Klein concludes that Head Start may protect against foster care because of its focus on the entire family. She suggests policymakers should consider making all children in the child welfare system, including those living at home, automatically eligible for Head Start. That could help prevent more kids from ending up in foster care.

These findings add to what we already know about Head Start’s return on investment. Children who attend Head Start have better language, cognitive and pre-literacy skills reducing the need for schools to provide remediation. Head Start alumni are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and on average have higher earnings. Head Start’s emphasis on healthy eating, active lifestyles and appropriate medical and dental care reduces community health care costs.

Throughout Idaho, there are long waiting lists to enroll in Head Start. Twenty thousand eligible Idaho children and their families are left behind due to a lack of space. As Idaho develops strategies to address family separation and child well-being, we need our state legislators to remember the proven track record of Idaho’s Head Start programs.

Sen. Abby Lee of Fruitland said, “We stand ready as a state to continue investing in upstream solutions. Foster care is really expensive, it’s devastating, it’s hard and it’s our last resort.”

Let’s make sure all legislators follow Sen. Lee’s lead and remember the families, like Amber’s, who, through Head Start, have turned their lives around, kept their families intact and met their full potential.

Bill Foxcroft is the executive director of Idaho Head Start Association. Evelyn Johnson is the chief executive officer of the Lee Pesky Learning Center and an associate professor and Boise State University.

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