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Santa Maria Panel Drives Home Importance of Early Childhood Development in Preventing Youth Violence

Speakers talk about the benefits of quality child care, programs for families and education


Investing in the youngest children — newborns to age 5 — can provide a key step toward preventing youth violence and other troubles, members of a Santa Maria panel said this week.

Approximately 75 people attended a panel discussion Monday titled “A Safe City for You and Our Children,” at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Maria Valley.

First 5 Santa Barbara County and Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley hosted the event.

Speakers focused on the importance of early childhood development through quality child care, programs for families, education and more, for reducing youth violence and keeping young people out of the criminal justice system.

Panelists included District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who spent four years leading Head Start state-funded preschools in Santa Barbara County and has worked at the District Attorney’s Office for 27 years.

“I did more to prevent crime in the four years when I ran Head Start than I did in the 27 years I spent prosecuting people,” Dudley said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind. So if you want to make a difference, if you want to reduce crime in Santa Barbara County, the most efficient and effective way to do that is to have high-quality preschool, early education programs.”

Parents need to be empowered to understand the critical importance of engage their children in basic activity — reading, talking and singing to youngsters as First 5 Santa Barbara County promotes, panelists said. 

Ben Romo, from First 5 Santa Barbara County, said the panel represented those working both in law enforcement and early childhood education.

Before the panel discussion began, Romo talked about studies showing early brain development, with the brain mostly formed by age 5.

“The science is really telling us what our hearts have always known,” added Camille Maben, First 5 California executive director. 

A strong bond between children and their families helps them thrive and leads to success as students and eventually adults, she added. 

Investing in children early pays off, with research showing lower high school dropout rates, fewer teen pregnancies and less troubled youth. 

“It makes sense to do it for kids. It makes even more sense to do it for society,” Maben said. 

Acting Chief Probation Officer Bev Taylor said there is a link between the support youths received, or don’t receive, and their involvement in the criminal justice system. 

“It’s critical to have support, nurturing, encouragement, applause for doing well and redirection when they miss the mark,” Taylor said.

“What we see with our youth on probation is that many of them don’t have parents who are around to engage, to encourage or to redirect.”

Most of them come from homes where the families don’t have regular dinners and many of those troubled youth were not involved in sports, arts or extracurricular activities, Taylor said, adding that a lack of disposable income can prevent involvement.

Stephen Walker, director of governmental affairs for the California Correctional Officers Association, said the juvenile system needs to replicate a family unit and show the youth that someone cares.

“Locking a kid in a room is not the answer,” Walker said, adding that sticking an apple in a dark room would cause it to rot. 

“Why would a child’s soul be any different?” asked Walker, who is also a member of the California Child Abuse Prevention Council.

In response to a plea to support First 5 efforts and other childhood programs, Walker said a price will be paid at some point.

“Pay them now. Pay us more later,” Walker said. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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