Governments need to do a better job of tracking and pinpointing which of a myriad of social programs would best help children cope with abuse in their early years, says a study released Thursday.
A panel of experts on early childhood development convened by the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences draws from some of the latest global research in the 160-page report.
The report says more long-term studies are needed to create behaviour-modification programs for abusive parents and prevention programs to keep kids safe.
"The emerging evidence is that child maltreatment and its associated outcomes can be reduced if specifically targeted, intensive and sustained services are deployed," says the study.
The emerging field of epigenetics, which studies how environmental factors like parenting can affect one's genetic development, could play a role in developing programs, it adds.
Marla Sokolowski, a Canada Research Chair of neurology and genetics at the University of Toronto, cited research that shows links between how frequently a mother rat licks and grooms its offspring and the development of stress regulation systems in babies.
She said understanding the impact parenting can have on genes could eventually help design programs to teach parental behaviours that help children develop.
Genetic information about the children may also help social workers target those who may need more help.
"We could predict ... which children are more vulnerable or not and then some of the interventions could be targeted to that part of the population," said Sokolowski.
"It's not something we can do now, but it holds some promise."
The study says in many instances, Canada's social programs aimed at preventing child abuse aren't well understood and their effectiveness isn't known.
Niko Trocme, a social work professor at McGill University and panel member, said each year social agencies receive reports of potential maltreatment of about 200,000 children across Canada.
Agencies estimate they provide services to only about 27 per cent of those kids, Trocme said.
"We're not doing a particularly good job of figuring out which of those 200,000 should be the focus of our efforts," he said.
He said child welfare systems are very much focused on identifying and investigating abusive acts by parents, but they do a poor job figuring out what to do about it.
"We know these are situations where a parent has acted in a way that puts the child at risk, but we know very little about the children ... who are being identified in the child welfare system," he said.
The panel agreed in its synopsis there's now little scientific doubt that abuse in early life has a lifelong affect on children.
The researchers said abuse in the early years is tied to long-term changes in brain circuitry, problems in the nervous and hormonal systems and other changes that "influence health and quality of life across the lifespan."