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Review

The British Columbia Atlas of Child Development

By Paul Kershaw, Clyde Hertzmann, Kate Trafford, Lori Irwin

November 4, 2013

Review By Mona Gleason

It is not surprising that many ad vocates of social justice for marginalized children and their families in British Columbia, Canada, and beyond eventually suffer professional and personal “burn-out.” Work in this vein has been ongoing in Canada for cen turies, under the ever evolving aus pices of charitable relief, orphanages, philanthropic child-saving, legislated child welfare, and social assistance, not to mention an entire army of clergy, social workers, foster parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Less formal community- and family-forged networks of support for those in strained circumstances, while harder to trace historically, nevertheless formed the first line of defence against familial destitution well into the twentieth century and continue to matter today. Concern regarding threats to the “best interests of the child” is not new nor, in my most cynical moments, do I believe it will ever be deemed unnecessary. The British Columbia Atlas of Child Development, produced by the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), representing over two hundred faculty, researchers, and graduate students in six universities across British Columbia, is not intended as a work of history. Nevertheless, it takes its place in a long line of efforts to improve the lives of BC children. As a compendium of visual representations regarding the “state of BC children” across a number of domains and based on a variety of data, the Atlas argues a homegrown version of “it takes a [supportive, secure, happy, safe] village to raise a child.” While the authors hope that it will appeal to a broad audience, the Atlas is most notably aimed at policy makers and community developers best placed to shift solutions from those centred on individual families to those centred on “nurturing neighbourhoods.”

Intended as a planning tool, the Atlas presents information on children’s early development among a variety of “envelopes,” including education, health, child care, welfare, and others. The maps contained in the Atlas draw together a massive amount of information gathered primarily from three sites. First, provincial and school district maps reflect 2001 census material on such things as the distribution of children under the age of five, median family income in communities, ethnic diversity, and so on. Second, the maps include the results from Early Development Instrument (EDI) assessments completed between 2000 and 2004 by kindergarten teachers of BC schoolchildren. According to the Atlas authors, the EDI “measures school readiness among children entering kindergarten in all BC school districts.” Third, the maps reflect program capacities in the province, including “the number of child care spaces, hospital utilization rates, income assistance patterns and so on.” (4)

The sheer volume of information the Atlas contains on the current circumstances of children in the province is stag gering. Using visual summaries, most par ticularly in the form of maps, it provides an overview of early childhood development trends across neighbourhoods, school districts, and provincial geographies in British Columbia. The underlying conceptual scaffolding supporting the Atlas and drawing its considerable array of information together is what the authors refer to as “the social care thesis.” Going beyond the well-established idea that family socioeconomic status (SES) determines the quality of child development, the social care thesis argues that real change for the better must be attentive to the ses of entire neighbourhoods. According to the authors, the “geography of opportunity has a significant statistical impact on a child’s development irrespective of the ses of the child’s household” (56).

The most unsurprising finding presented in the Atlas, at least from my per spective as a feminist historian, is the role of various “isms,” including racism, sexism, and classism, in negatively influencing child development in the province. These findings are based on information gathered along the edi assessments. According to these results, low-income families, families with fathers who perform no child care, first generation Canadians, and First Nations families are among the most vulnerable across the spectrum of risks outlined in the index (60). But this information is not new, and its effects continue to be generated by the very policy makers to whom the Atlas is intended to appeal. Citing only one recent example, a series of “Report Cards on Women and Children in BC” were initiated in 2002 in response to the devastating cutbacks to provincial services introduced by the Liberal government under Gordon Campbell. Modelling his policies on the “Harris Common Sense Revolution” in Ontario in the 1990s, Campbell targeted, and continues to target, many services for women, children, and the poor in general. Feminist faculty and graduate students at BC universities came together to provide monthly assessments of the impact of the Liberal policies on women and children in the province. Although articulated differently, the Report Cards and the Atlas share some common ground. The loss of many of these services to government cuts has a direct impact on the “geography of opportunity” for families. Like the authors of the Atlas, many advocates for women and children have warned that social inequities beget unequal childhoods and that unequal childhoods beget social inequities.

It is worth troubling some of the data used in the Atlas. In particular, I wonder about the reliability of the EDI. This instrument was developed in the 1990s by academics, including Magdalena Janus and Dan Oxford, and was supported by a research group that included Fraser Mustard, Clyde Hertzman, Richard Tremblay, and Doug Willms. It is administered “in the form of a checklist that can be filled out by a kindergarten teacher after s/he knows the child for three months” (6). It is more accurate, then, to say that the edi reflects kindergarten teachers’ perceptions of the “at-riskness” of their students. To what extent did the data collection process have its own sexist, racist, and/or classist biases built into it? If teachers “already knew,” or thought they knew, the children and families they were assessing, what might be problematic about their “objective” assessment? Alternatively, what does a teacher “know” about a family after three months? For example, according to the edi, First Nations children are a vulnerable population. Many in the First Nations community would argue the opposite: the vulnerability doesn’t come from being First Nations, it comes from being First Nations in a racist province. The distinction is critical but it is not clear that the edi is capable of capturing and reflecting this. I want to trust that the Atlas confirms the devastating effects of social injustice on children’s early development, but I worry about the effects of “deficient thinking” on those communities represented as failing.

If the information in The British Columbia Atlas of Child Development is to be believed, then what is to be done? The authors encourage users to plan more carefully, to take advantage of the insights it affords to “reduce developmental delays,” and, in accordance with Canada’s Children’s Agenda, to “respond to the needs of families.” It represents a considerable move towards securing these lofty but critical goals. Perhaps now that the help team has codified the effects of sexism, racism, and classism in more “objective” statistical and map form, more people will listen to what many advocates have long known. In this regard, what we stop doing to many BC children and families will be as important as what we plan for their future.