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'Knowing Someone Is There' Buoys Families in Brattleboro Program

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BRATTLEBORO, VT.--Since Kathy Emerson began making weekly visits to the Houle home two years ago, Carolyn, a 31-year-old mother of four, has finished her first year of college with A's and B's and is eyeing a career in nursing.

Her 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, is in a child-care program, her other children have benefited from activities ranging from summer camp to Tae Kwon Do lessons, and Ms. Houle feels better able to prod their learning and handle discipline issues.

"All the little boosts'' Ms. Emerson's help has provided, Ms. Houle says, are "the things I needed to move forward instead of backward.''

Apart from assistance with services, transportation, and other financial help, Ms. Houle says, she has drawn strength from "knowing someone else is out there.''

"I would call her about almost anything,'' she says.

The key to the intervention, Ms. Emerson says, has been encouraging Ms. Houle and directing her toward goals that once seemed elusive.

"What this program did is provide her with a person who acted like she believed in her,'' she says.

Ms. Emerson, who is working toward a master's degree in social-work policy and planning, is a key player in the Windham County (Vt.) Family Support Program, one of 32 programs to receive a grant under the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1988. The Windham County program, launched in 1989, is administered by the Brattleboro school district.

The program's goal is to provide support to low-income families with children from birth to school age to enhance their development and school readiness. The projects are designed to last five years.

As in a growing number of projects aimed at improving children's chances by meeting family needs, a focal point is the home visitor or case manager who works closely with families. (See related story, page 1.)

Network of Support

The federal Comprehensive Child Development Program, funded at $44.3 million in fiscal 1992, was modeled on the Beethoven Project, an effort aimed at improving the life chances of children in a Chicago housing project. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

Under the federal program, infants, toddlers, and preschool children receive health services, including screening, immunization, and medical treatment and referral; child care that meets state-licensing standards; early-childhood-development programs; special help for children with or at risk of developmental delays; and nutritional services.

Parents and other family members also get prenatal care; education in parenting and infant and child development; health care; nutrition; referral to education, employment counseling, and vocational training; and help securing housing, food, and income support.

While federal law leaves it to each project to set staff criteria, many are struggling to strike the proper balance between experience, education, and community sensitivity, notes Allen Smith, the coordinator of the Comprehensive Child Development Program for the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families.

But on-site training and experience with the projects have helped case managers become "more skilled in dealing with both crises and child and family development,'' he says.

In the Windham County program, eight home visitors serve a total of 62 families. The visitors are supervised by a multidisciplinary team including a health educator, a social worker to coordinate services for adults, and an early-education specialist. The staff also includes a men's program coordinator and an employment and training specialist.

Every six weeks, the team meets with home visitors individually for updates on each family. Regular meetings with a consulting psychologist and impromptu meetings with staff members to respond to crises or special concerns are also held.

About $10,000 of the $811,000 grant goes into a family-assistance fund that can be tapped to help with costs ranging from driver's-license fees to utilities. A $20,000 fund recently set up through a local bank is also available for 2 percent-interest loans on cars or home repairs.

Workers collaborate with a network of state and local agencies to link families to medical, dental, education, employment, housing, welfare, and child-care services.

The program also has two drop-in centers and sponsors workshops, support groups, and recreational activities. A parent-advisory council budgets and plans such programs, and a community-advisory council offers guidance.

Closing the Circle

Judith Jerald, the executive director of the Windham County program, says the program has helped "close the circle of services'' that opened when the school district and community agencies joined forces in 1986 to launch a parenting-education program.

An umbrella organization started in 1989 now coordinates those and other federal and state programs for at-risk families and children, including Even Start, Follow-Through, and a state-funded early-education program and parent-child center.

The continuum of services from birth to 3rd grade is "exciting in terms of research,'' says Ms. Jerald, who also notes that interventions are being extensively documented for a national evaluation.

The Windham County program--the only school-run project to receive funding under the federal program--has set in motion other collaborative efforts between schools and agencies, says Raymond McNulty, the superintendent of schools in the Southeastern portion of Windham County.

In addition, he says, the program is "making us take a closer look at what's happening outside the school.''

Overseeing the family-assistance fund has also sensitized school personnel to the day-to-day crises families face, Mr. McNulty says. Seeing what it means to a child to get the money to go on a class trip or how "a family's whole stability rests on $25 to fix a battery in a car,'' he says, "creates a certain kind of internal discussion.''

Management by the schools is also a "great advantage,'' Ms. Jerald adds, because it avoids the stigma of a welfare program and encourages parental involvement in schools.

'A Second Mom'

During her home visits, which usually last from an hour to an hour and a half at least once a week, Ms. Emerson typically spends part of her time in development-oriented play with the "target'' infants or children under age 5 while engaging parents' participation.

The rest of her time is spent reviewing parents' progress toward goals they have set, discussing new options and obstacles, checking on the health and use of services by family members, helping with program paperwork, and responding to a wide range of childrearing and personal concerns.

"Kathy and I are real close,'' says Carey Gagne, a 19-year-old single mother of 5-month-old twins and a 2-year-old son. "She's like a second mom to me.''

Ms. Gagne describes how Ms. Emerson helped her find better housing, arrange for help with a down payment and utility hookups, apply for public assistance, and find child care for her son.

She has also gone with her to the doctor and lent support during her pregnancy and other difficult times.

Ms. Gagne says the intervention has helped her become more patient with her children, and she boasts of her son Christopher's increased attentiveness and interest in books.

But it is Ms. Emerson's friendship she seems to value most. The program appears to be providing "the first real meaningful emotional support she's had in her life,'' Ms. Emerson says.

She admits, though, that progress is harder to gauge in other families.

Their intervention and existing systems of help, she and other home visitors say, are not always enough to redirect families with legacies of pervasive poverty, school failure, substance or alcohol abuse, child abuse, and homelessness.

The area's poor job market has also demoralized families and undermined employment-training efforts, Ms. Emerson says.

But even in homes where conditions remain chaotic for children and where change is elusive, she says, being welcomed into homes that once "wouldn't let any agency into their lives'' is a hopeful sign.

"The fact that one person stays with a family for so long creates a tremendous level of trust that is just beginning to pay off,'' Ms. Emerson says.

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