A new report finds too many of New Jersey’s youngest children are being raised in difficult situations that threaten their potential to thrive later in life.

According to Cel Zalkind, the president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, there are now more than 310,000 children under the age of 3 living in New Jersey, and 35 percent of them are living in low-income families.

She said this is troubling because “we have all realized the importance of the early years and how much growth and development goes on during this time.”

She said we have some great programs and policies in place in New Jersey “like family leave and home visitation to support new parents, but they’re not widely used, there are barriers to using them, or there are just not enough services available."

Zalkind said the data in the Kids County 'Babies Count' on child care is most troubling.

“When you look at where they begin their education outside the family, it’s in childcare, and there is very, very little childcare available for babies and toddlers," she said.

The report notes fewer than half of the state’s 4,025 child care centers are licensed to serve infants and toddlers, so this means “about 27 percent of babies with parents in the workforce can find spaces in licensed child care centers," Zalkind said.

“There are very few licensed child care centers that accept babies, especially where the family has a childcare subsidy," Zalkind said.

The result, Zalind said, is most babies are in unlicensed, makeshift care situations.

She said it’s shocking that almost a third of all children in New Jersey live in low -ncome families that are struggling just to pay rent and put food on the table, but “that rate is even higher for babies.

"It’s a little over 35 percent, I think that has the potential for an incredibly negative impact as a child is developing.”

She also said out the report finds in New Jersey, black children are over-represented in poverty, and over-represented in the foster care system.

“There’s something there, maybe it’s access to healthcare that is providing a barrier to primarily black mothers being able to get their kids on the right start," she said.

The report also finds infants and toddlers are more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect than the statewide child average. They make up 26 percent of the state’s total out-of-home, foster care population.

In 2016, 10 out of the 17 child deaths due to abuse and neglect involved children less than 3 years old.

However there is some good news. The report finds in 2016, only 3 percent of children under age 3 were without health insurance, and births to teen mothers in New Jersey continue to decline. The Garden State teen birth rate is 4.4 births per 1,000 teens, far lower than the national rate of 8.8 per 1,000.

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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com