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Gains Attributed to Child-Development Project

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A federal project aimed at improving the outlook for poor families with young children is making important inroads in putting parents on the path to self-sufficiency and improving children's home lives, a study shows.

The findings are detailed in an interim report on the Comprehensive Child Development Program sent to Congress last month by Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala.

The program, enacted in 1988, aims to address the "pervasive'' needs of low-income children and their parents by providing comprehensive services from the prenatal period to the time the target child enters school. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1992.)

The study could help guide policymakers in coordinating the new initiative for children from birth to age 3 that was included in a recent measure reauthorizing Head Start. The bill stressed the need to build on efforts such as the child-development projects, which eventually will be consolidated into the birth-to-3 program.

The 34 projects, which received $46.8 million in this fiscal year, provide educational, health, and social services for families with incomes below the poverty line in which the mother is pregnant or has a child younger than age 1. Families must agree to participate for five years.

The program seeks collaboration among community agencies but places the responsibility on parents, working with case managers, to set and meet their own goals.

'The Way To Go'

The interim report to Congress is based on a study of 21 of the initial 24 projects after two years. A final report will be completed in 1996, after the projects have completed their five-year funding cycle.

The report says that the program is serving the "multi-risk'' families it was aimed at, and that the vast majority of families are receiving services such as parenting education, early-childhood education, and health screening.

It also found that between 80 percent and 95 percent of participants have achieved goals they set or "made significant progress.''

The study "supports the notion that comprehensive service provision is the way to go'' and validates the program's "balanced approach to family support,'' said Yonette Thomas, who coordinated the portion of the study dealing with implementation issues for C.s.R. Incorporated, a Washington-based research contractor.

Compared with a control group, participating mothers were likelier to be enrolled in educational, vocational, or job-training programs.

"There is a whole lot of that sort of activity going on that one would hope would lead in the long run to economic self-sufficiency,'' said Robert G. St. Pierre, a vice president of Abt Associates, the Cambridge, Mass., firm that conducted the portion of the study assessing the initial impact of the program.

Compared with the control group, project mothers also interacted more "positively'' with their children, had higher educational expectations for them, and displayed "fewer attitudes associated with child abuse and neglect.''

'Home Environment'

The study also found that project mothers delayed subsequent pregnancies longer than those in the control group did, used less alcohol while pregnant, and bore slightly heavier babies. And, compared with control-group children, youngsters in the program scored higher on a developmental assessment, exhibited more "prosocial'' behavior, and had fewer injuries requiring hospitalization.

While the effects on children were "modest or small,'' Mr. St. Pierre said, the projects "have done several things to minimize the risks for children by improving their home environments.''

The study notes that it took the projects one year or more to become well established, and that grantees faced numerous hurdles in hiring staffs, finding facilities, forging bonds with community agencies, recruiting and retaining families, and delivering services.

At first, projects found themselves devoting too much time to a small group of multi-problem families, the report says, and many also were impeded by local gaps in services, such as child care.

Ms. Thomas noted that over time project managers learned to balance their caseloads better and that highly troubled families began to stabilize "to the point where they can look to higher goals.'' She also observed that projects have worked well with community agencies to bridge service gaps and improve the quality of care.

The report praises the projects for coordinating and strengthening community services for poor families and establishing some 3,000 interagency agreements.

Information on how to order the report, "Comprehensive Child Development Program--A National Family Support Demonstration: Interim Report to Congress,'' is available from the Head Start Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth, and Families, Health and Human Services Department, P.O. Box 1182, Washington, D.C. 20013.

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