While in the waiting room, Tanya's mother was asked to fill out a questionnaire. She did. A doctor examined Tanya -- who was found to be healthy -- but the mother kept her dark sunglasses on throughout the examination, saying little.
Before Tanya and her mother left, a Child Development Specialist approached the mother and gently remarked that the questionnaire indicated she might be having a difficult time with depression.
The specialist said she was here to help. Tanya's mother listened quietly for a moment, then took off her dark glasses and began to cry.
Tanya's mother was overwhelmed. Two months prior, she had run, with her four children, from her abusive husband. She was working two full-time jobs to make ends meet. She had no money to buy furniture. Her children slept on the floor. And now Tanya was hitting other children at preschool. She would be expelled if her behavior didn't improve.
The Child Development Specialist said she knew a program that could help.
Enter Child FIRST (Family Interagency Resource, Support, and Training).
Created by Dr. Darcy Lowell and developed at Bridgeport Hospital a decade ago, Child FIRST is a cost-effective, home-based intervention program for young, vulnerable children and their families. It is designed to promote learning and behavioral health, as well as prevent abuse and neglect.
The program recently received a $3.2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to replicate its efforts in five new Connecticut communities, including Norwalk.
The Child Guidance Center of Mid-Fairfield County in Norwalk is one of the agencies participating in the expansion of Child FIRST in Norwalk, which is operating from the new Community Health Center on Connecticut Avenue.The Connecticut Center for Effective Practice of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut will support the replication of Child FIRST across the state.
"The focus is on high-risk families and an intensive home-based assessment of the child and primary caregiver," associate director Mary Peniston explained. "We've learned how a lot of stress can affect the child, and how there has to be a caregiver who can mitigate that stress. If that doesn't happen, the child can be hardwired in a different way....The goal here is to improve the relationship between the child and the primary caregiver."
Peniston said a clinician, who helps coach relationships, and a care coordinator will go into a home; the care coordinator will then determine a family's needs. The Child FIRST program will then deal not only with child-caregiver relationships, but also with any immediate stresses the family might be up against.
"It helps form a long-lasting bond between the child and the caregiver," Peniston said. "It also provides the family with the right skills, once the intervention ends."
Peniston added that the program has had the effect of improving emotional health and learning capacities in children.
Typical intervention for one family costs about $5,000, according to information from Child FIRST. If a single child is saved from psychiatric hospitalization, the state of Connecticut will save $700,000.
Today, life is better for Tanya and her mother, who saw first hand how the Child FIRST team was there to help. State payments were redirected from Tanya's father to her mother, who was able to quit one of her two jobs and spend more time at home. The mental health clinician observed Tanya at preschool -- and helped her teacher understand that she needed attention, needed to be involved. Tanya's mother was able to spend more time with her. With the mother's sense of hope returned and the prospect for a better future a very real possibility, the Child FIRST team helped Tanya's mother work out a reasonable payment schedule for her rent.
Tanya's mother no longer wears dark glasses. Her apartment is cozy. It feels like a real home. And when Tanya sings in the church choir, her mother is there to listen.
"We can dramatically improve the outcomes not only for the child, but for the whole family if we intervene at the earliest possible time. This is critical to creating healthy, successful learners and closing the achievement gap," Lowell said in a statement. "We know that families want to do their best for their children."
For information about the program, contact Norwalk program director Gail Melanson at 203-851-1018.