I’ve been involved in Early Connections, an initiative to make the early childhood mental health services here in Alameda County more family-driven and culturally responsive. Last year I wrote a piece about our story:
WHY WE’RE HERE: UNITING FAMILY MEMBERS AND PROVIDERS
Early Connections is about uniting family members and providers to make positive changes in the early childhood system of care. Early Connections is creating opportunities for families to speak up, for providers to listen to families, and ultimately for families and providers to work in partnership to transform the early childhood system of care.
• Families Speak Up “When I use my voice, I have a chance to transform the Early Childhood system of care. I can develop mutually responsible and respectful relationships between service providers and family members.”–Parent of a young child
• Providers Listen to Families “I think there needs to be more letting go on the part of providers. Providers need to humble themselves and really listen in a different way to families. Providers can not assume they know best. Better trust needs to be created and this is challenging, since for many families trust was broken time and time again. Healing past wounds is a long slow process. Taking the risk to trust on both ends is the first step.”–Alameda County Provider
• Build Partnerships “I hope to open my mind further to a true collaboration and partnership with families. This has already begun in my work with Early Connections thus far. I have been humbled and challenged to think and speak and work differently.”–Provider, Mental Health Organization
THE FAMILY EXPERIENCE
By the time parents come to someone for help with their small child, they are usually quite concerned about their child. Nothing hurts a parent’s heart like watching their child struggle, and from this vulnerable place, parents come to service providers.
Most of us can relate to the experience of seeking help from someone and walking away feeling worse than you did before. Misunderstandings between families and providers are unintentional, but oftentimes families who seek help or answers from early childhood professionals come away with stories like these:
• “When I interfaced with the schools for help for my daughter, there was an attitude of blame—like there was something wrong with me or my daughter. That makes the parent feel even more guilty, ashamed, helpless. You feel like it is a poor reflection on you.”–Parent of a young child
• “When you are going through those crises, there’s not a lot of information and not a lot of help and you can call and call and call until you’re hoarse.–Family member of a child in need of services
• “If you can’t get the help you need for your child, the child will be re-traumatized and continue to deteriorate. What greater pain is there than that?”—Parent of a young child
• “…disrespected because my culture or parenting style is different from the person I’m talking to.” –Parent
THE PROVIDER EXPERIENCE
Over the last 20 years in Alameda County, a dedicated group of early childhood service providers have worked to develop our current early childhood system of care. They have diligently sought more funding to increase the number of early childhood service providers, and have strived to improve the knowledge and skills of providers in the fields of early care and education, developmental services and mental health services.
• We have been working for years to build a continuum of care that listens to family voice and understands the child and family in a cultural context, as well as to have services for small children talk to one another and understand the whole child and whole family.”—Margie Padilla, Mental Health Provider and Early Connections Project Director
• “I would like the Early Childhood system to have better collaboration and shared resources—a different way of thinking that is truly collaborative with families—not just surface level engagement and collaboration. I would like there to be no waiting list for kids to be evaluated and assessed and a shift in the way CPS operates so that it is more “family friendly.”–Mental Health Provider
WHAT WE BELIEVE AT EARLY CONNECTIONS
• Families are the experts on their children.
Family members know their children better than anyone else does—more than a pediatrician, a therapist, a child care provider–anyone. And yet, when a child is struggling in some kind of way, often doctors and therapists are regarded as the experts about the child, and the parents’ expertise on their own children is relegated to second class status.
No matter where in the world we’re from, what our family history is, what culture we claim, we all have beliefs and traditions about how to raise our children. It is easy for certain types of parenting practices to be applied in a cookie-cutter fashion, which can make people from some cultures feel misunderstood and unheard, and can make suggestions from a service provider come across as a mismatch for a family.
Providers who understand a family’s expertise, strengths and culture can build equal partnerships with families that support a child’s well-being and growth.
“When my daughter was a baby, we had a worker who talked with me as an equal– from a place of being a parent herself. She believed in my daughter’s ability to thrive and grow, and encouraged me to believe in myself as a parent, since I know my child best. This worker and I learned a lot from each other.
When my daughter was 3, we had a child care provider who didn’t have such a collaborative relationship with us. She called my daughter “unsuccessful.” How can someone be “unsuccessful” when they’re only 3? By that time I was involved in Early Connections, and I was able to ask her not to use that word about my child, since it wasn’t helpful in identifying my daughter’s specific challenges, and because it hurt me as a parent to hear her say that about my child. Then I moved on to a different child care situation.
Every child and every parent deserve to be believed in and treated respectfully.”
–Parent of a young child
• Families have the right to be in the driver’s seat.
Every family has the right to be in the driver’s seat of their child’s care, and at Early Connections, we are working to promote Family-Driven Care throughout the system.
• When families are treated as experts about their children, service providers and family members can work together as equals to support the children.
• If families are reporting that it’s difficult to find and use services, family member concerns need to drive systems changes to make things easier.
• Family members may get their best support from “natural supports”, including faith-based and culture-specific support systems. These natural supports deserve the same respect that mental health agencies receive.
• Family members need to be part of decision-making bodies in all organizations that serve children and families.
• Family members need to be decision-makers regarding organizational, local, state and national policies about children’s well-being.
THE FAMILY-DRIVEN CARE MOVEMENT IS PART OF SOMETHING BIG
Early Connections is working to improve the experience of individual families and children, and we’re also part of some larger movements. We stand on the shoulders of the people across the nation who have paved the way for this project to promote partnerships between family members and providers.
• Consumer Movement: The Consumer Movement is a powerful movement of adult consumers (formerly called“patients”) of the mental health system standing up against the abuse they experienced in mental health institutions. This movement was rooted in the social change movements of 1970’s, and has successfully fought for and won positive changes towards self-determination and involvement of consumers at all levels of the mental health system. This movement coined the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
• Family Voice Movement: Another movement that we owe thanks to is the Family Voice Movement for children with special health care needs (formerly called “disabilities”). Starting in the 1960’s, families of children with special health care needs fought to be able to bring their children home instead of leaving them in hospitals and institutions. This movement has gone on to achieve advances in inclusive practices in schools, has promoted family-centered care, and has improved state and federal policies.
• Systems of Care Movement: The movement to develop of systems of care came directly out of the consumer and family voice movements. In each of these movements there was insight that an integrated system of care can better serve the multiple needs of anyone seeking help.
• Social Justice: Social justice efforts across the country are working to address inequities in institutions and systems, including the early childhood system of care.
• Family Driven Care: Early Connections is part of a growing national movement of families and service providers of young children with social-emotional or mental health concerns who are working to promote the principles and practices of family-driven care.
THIS IS OUR STORY
As the story of Early Connections continues, we give thanks to those who came before us; we listen to those who are currently struggling; and, as families and providers, we move together towards a future where we are united for early childhood wellness.
(You can learn more about this project at http://www.acearlyconnect.org)