Diane Saxon-Carter (left), a parent educator from Blue Island District 130, advises new mom Porshe Harris to talk to and read to her son, to build a strong bond with him and give him an early start on school readiness. Saxon-Carter and other staff from the district visit new mothers and counsel them about the benefits of early learning. Credit: John Booz

Every two weeks, Kimberly Smith gets a visit from a parent educator who teaches her an activity to do with her 17-month-old son, Jeremiah. The visits have helped her become a better parent, says Smith.

During a recent visit, a parent educator had Smith carry out an activity with her son that involved putting items in a container, then having him pull them out and examine them. The goal: to promote learning by capitalizing on a young child’s natural inquisitiveness.

The parent educator also checked Jeremiah’s development and screened for hearing problems and other potential concerns. If red flags are raised, Smith will get a referral to an agency for help.

Smith’s deep involvement in the program led her to become a home visiting recruiter, through POWER-PAC, the acronym for Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew – Policy Action Council. POWER-PAC is sponsored by the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues, known as COFI.

“I get to sign up other moms who may not be as attentive to children as I am, who may not have access to books, who may not have car seats,” says Smith, who lives in Englewood. “It makes them better parents as well.”

Smith has guided other parents through the program, like a mother whose 2-year-old rarely spoke. “By 2 years old, they should be saying full sentences,” Smith points out. “[The mother] had never done anything about it. When she was introduced to the home visiting program, they let her know that he should see a speech therapist.”  The boy’s vocabulary has since increased.

Another plus has been social support. “I get to bond with other moms and dads, and we get to share stories about our children,” Smith says. “I am more aware of what [my son] can do and how advanced he is, and also what to look for in the next few months.”

The goal of home visiting programs (some if which work with expectant mothers as well as new moms) is to ensure that the youngest children get on track for a healthy start in preschool and are eventually ready for kindergarten. Studies have found that home visiting programs can improve children’s odds of graduating from high school and not having to repeat a grade, as well as their health and social skills. Economics researcher and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has found that birth-to-3 programs have even greater economic returns than preschool.

New federal grants for home visiting, authorized as part of health care reform legislation, began flowing to Illinois in 2011. In Chicago’s Englewood, West Englewood and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods, these dollars have increased both the reach and potential impact of home visiting initiatives by opening up more spots for families and amping up community outreach for screening and placement.  

Plus, through a new partnership called the South Side Early Learning Network, more inter-agency collaboration is starting to take place. The collaboration’s goal is provide help for home visiting families that, through screening, are identified as being at-risk for domestic violence, mental health problems and other issues.

Chicago is just one of six places in the state that are doing similar work. The others are Elgin, Rockford, Cicero, Macon County, and Vermilion County.

Statistics bear out the need for extra services. Screening tools have found that 16 percent of women who are screened for home visiting services may be victims of domestic violence, and 23 percent may be suffering from depression, according to data from a state presentation on the program that took place earlier this year.

The collaboration relies on coordinated intake, in which institutions in the same neighborhood now send families to a single agency–Children’s Home + Aid Society—for screening to determine if they qualify to participate and which agency is the best fit. Previously, agencies screened families themselves.

The federal grant funds will also pay for research on the effectiveness of home visiting, including a national overview; an evaluation of doulas, professionals who provide support with pregnancy issues and childbirth, then conduct home visits once a baby is born; and a study of the Fussy Baby Network, which provides support for parents whose infants won’t stop crying. The results will be presented to Congress sometime in 2015.

Expectations are high. Illinois has promised the federal government it will show progress in improving maternal and infant health; decreasing child abuse, child injury and emergency visit rates; and decreasing the incidence of domestic violence.

Building a network, overcoming barriers

The South Side Early Learning Network, convened by COFI, promotes the collaboration and help agencies work through any problems that arise.“Our role is to bring the various partners together and help them shape an agenda for how they want to move forward on early learning goals for the area,” says Tracy Crowder, senior organizer at COFI.

So far, the network has had four meetings and has drawn 80 different participants, including CPS, area preschools and schools, the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, and advocacy groups such as the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Illinois Action for Children.

Rosazlia Grillier says she thinks some of COFI’s work – including its report “Why Isn’t Johnny in Preschool?” – was a catalyst for the work now being done by the South Side Early Learning Network’s work. Grillier is a trainer and community organizer at COFI.

Among other findings, the report found that families weren’t participating in early childhood education because of a confusing system and “a lack of coordinated services.” The single referral system makes it easier for families. “You’re not telling 500 people your same story and still not getting the services you need,” Grillier says.

Despite the benefits, some parents are reluctant to participate in home visiting. Smith says they may fear that strangers coming into their home will be nosy.

“I tell parents, the program is not that personal.  They don’t come in looking in your house, looking through cabinets and things like that,” Smith says. Families might also think the home visitor won’t understand their concerns. “They think, ‘It’s just a job, so how could this person possibly know what I need?’ ” Smith adds.

Other hurdles exist, such as unpredictable work schedules, families who have lost their housing and need to move, or animosity from partners or roommates toward the home visitor.

To bring people in the door, POWER-PAC and other agencies have sent recruiters out to knock on doors in the neighborhood and give families information about the program, says Grillier. Screenings are also done at hospitals, food stamp application centers, or even at high schools to reach teen parents.

Workers also visit health clinics, homeless shelters, child care centers and preschool programs, all in an effort to talk to parents about what the program does. Even community organizations are referring families to the program.

“By all working together, we almost create a dragnet,” says Jan Stepto-Millett, vice president of early childhood services at Children’s Home + Aid Society of Illinois.

The ultimate goal is for word-of-mouth to become the major marketing tool, says Liz Heneks, vice president of programs for ChildServ.  “We are looking at how do we create avenues for clients to bring in their friends and talk about the program?”

Through the collaboration, agencies also can refer clients to each other’s programs. For instance, Children’s Home + Aid Society’s fatherhood program now includes fathers whose children are in other agencies’ home visiting programs.

“I think it allows us to provide more useful salient services to the families, and provide it in a way that encourages us to partner rather than compete,” Stepto-Millett says. “In this age where there are all kinds of fiscal pressures, it is really important to be careful about getting everything we can out of each dollar. By doing this, we reduce duplicative services.”

Stepto-Millett says the extra outreach means families are coming in that “weren’t even on the radar” before.

Coketha Hendricks of Henry Booth House says the connections among agencies have strengthened services, and that she is now able to access resources that “you wouldn’t have even thought about a 0-to-3 program connecting with.”

“I have got contacts with people in the schools, programs that deal with ex-offenders, DCFS-involved families,” she says.

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