Developmental Neuroscience, Children’s Relationships with Primary Caregivers, and Child Protection Policy Reform

Lois A. Weithorn

Volume 63, Issue 6, 1487-1553

Empirical research has confirmed that the harms of child maltreatment can affect almost every area of an individual’s functioning and can reverberate across relationships, generations, and communities. Most recently, investigators at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have called for policymakers to prioritize prevention and amelioration of child maltreatment in a manner consistent with its approach to other major public health problems.This Article—an outgrowth of a panel on Relationships with Caregivers and Children’s Neurobiological Development, which took place at a recent symposium, Law and Policy of the Developing Brain, co-sponsored by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and Stanford Law School—addresses some of the potential policy applications of research on the neurobiology of attachment, maltreatment, and trauma, with particular attention to the government’s articulated mission of safeguarding children’s welfare.

Part I of this Article address the state’s relationship with children and families, and the law’s recognition of the centrality of children’s primary caregivers—typically their parents—to children’s well-being. Part II critiques certain aspects of our legal system’s predominant response to child maltreatment. Part III reviews recent research on the effects of child maltreatment, with special attention to developmental neurobiological findings. Part IV addresses some implications of these findings for child protection policy and sets forth recommendations that are consistent with the empirical research and responsive to the critiques set forth in Part II.

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