KET Legislative Coverage

Raising Healthy Children Through Early Intervention

by John Gregory | 04/21/14 4:56 PM

Since 1999, Dr. Otto Kaak has tried to figure out how to help children suffering from abuse and neglect. Now he's sharing his knowledge and the latest research on childhood brain development with both medical professionals and parents.

Kaak spoke about his work with Bill Goodman on One to One. Kaak is also featured in the KET documentary, Safe and Sound: Raising Emotionally Healthy Children in a Stressful World.

As associate director for the University of Kentucky’s Center on Trauma and Children, Kaak assesses families referred to him by the court system and the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. He says 75 percent to 80 percent of the abused and neglected children he sees at the clinic have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

"It can't be that there are that many kids with that disorder," Kaak counters. "It's got to do with their backgrounds and the way they've been raised." He says doctors prescribe medications to treat the attention deficit symptoms, but that doesn't address the underlying causes in the family environment. That work frequently takes time and money that physicians or social workers often don't have, according to Kaak.

Research on Pre- and Post-Natal Factors
Researchers believe raising mentally and physically healthy kids begins in the womb. Kaak says studies now show that pregnant women who are stressed or feel depressed secrete hormones that adversely affect their unborn children. After they are born, babies face a series of challenges to their well-being from how their parents interact with them, to how daycare often shuffles them from person to person. The key, Kaak says, is creating caring environments for children as early and as often as possible because those positive experiences help build strong neural pathways in the child's brain.

"Early childhood is the area in which we can have the most influence on children and their development," Kaak explains. "If we catch them early enough, we can save lives as dramatically as someone would in an emergency room. I think what needs to be determined is the best treatments available [and] how to help families prevent problems from occurring the first place."

Watch the full One to One conversation.