Developing Families: Law Meets the Science of Child Development

Science and law are not obvious partners.  Scientists seek to discover the truths of the natural world, while lawyers interpret intricate rules enacted by government.  Practicing physicians treat the mind and body, while practicing lawyers protect clients from the power of the state.  Over the past two years, I’ve been involved in creating a new research collaborative between the Yale Law School and the Yale Child Study Center, which has brought law and science together in a common project:  to improve children’s developmental chances by articulating and advocating for public policies that reflect the best scientific understanding of what children need.  

            Begun in the summer of 2017, the ongoing collaboration has proved fruitful in generating original research and policy proposals.  Although we initially spoke different professional languages, we share a common core of concern with improving children’s life chances.  As we worked together, we discovered that some areas of law and public policy — family law, child welfare, and special education – are explicitly open to input from science. That is, in these areas of law, more so than (say) property or contract law, lawmakers express legal standards in terms of children’s best interests, well-being, and development. That makes these areas of law unusually ripe for – and able to benefit from – scientific insight. 

            Concretely, we have hosted two conferences on child development and law and have produced a book draft, Developing Families:  Science-Based Innovations to Support and Promote Early Relationships. Our draft book lays out what science has discovered about the impact of trauma, the importance of attachment, and the potential for resilience. Our legal and policy analysis builds on those insights to recommend a range of public policy initiatives centered on building (or re-building) two generations.  We also recommend reforms in the laws governing immigration detention, child welfare, and child custody.

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