'Toxic stress' of housing-related problems has major impact on child development - report

'Toxic stress' of housing-related problems has major impact on child development - report

Housing-related problems such as homelessness, housing insecurity, overcrowding and substandard housing has a major impact on families and child development, according to a new report.

The report, undertaken by the Young Knocknaheeny (YK) Area Based Childhood programme in Cork, found that children are also experiencing health difficulties such as respiratory illness due to damp and mould in unsuitable accommodation.

The YK report found that almost half of the families in its Infant Mental Health Home Visiting Programme reported housing-related issues, sub-standard housing conditions, homelessness or are at-risk of homelessness.

In the 12 months from January 2018 to January 2019, a total of 60 families engaged in the YK Home Visiting Programme.

Of these, 29 families - including 60 children - reported issues relating to homelessness, overcrowding, sub-standard housing or other housing-related issues.

“Young Knocknaheey is concerned that for many families poor housing conditions undermines their children’s development, and also creates a barrier for other family and child services trying to intervene and support them," said YK manager, Katherine Harford.

In the report, parents tell of how their physical and mental health is worsened due to their housing situation.

Dealing with these housing issues is described as "deeply traumatic" and as something which compounds financial, physical and mental health difficulties.

The report says that this has a knock-on effect on children.

"Children’s access to schooling is interrupted and their ability to engage fully in education is disrupted as a result of factors such as a long commute to school, lack of quality sleep, poor nutrition, as well as inadequate space, privacy, quality environment for study or family time," the report states.

"Children do not have adequate space to play. This impacts on their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and further compounds the risks to both physical and mental health."

The report also documents the lived experiences of families in four detailed case studies and a Practitioner case study.

“If a family is at-risk of homelessness or experiencing housing-related issues, that becomes the most over-whelming and prominent piece of work with that family," the Practitioner said.

All of your energy becomes about housing. The service that we are working to deliver, to support the relationship between child and parent, is put on hold as the parents are overwhelmed trying to navigate housing issues, or avoid homelessness.

Ms Harford said that the report highlights the urgent need to seriously address housing challenges with both long and immediate term responses.

"A large programme of high-quality home building, together with high-quality community design and supports, are core recommendations of the report," said Ms Harford.

"Having the security of a home within vulnerable communities is fundamental for child and family programmes to be able to intervene and best improve the parent-infant relationship and child development outcomes."

Other recommendations include taking a more child-focused approach in the immediate term in responding the housing issues included in the report.

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