February 20, 2010 in City

Save program at Crosswalk

Mary Ann Murphy Special to The Spokesman-Review

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“Then, how do we reach the children most likely to be exposed to complex trauma as early as possible in their lives so we can change the effects on the architecture of their brains?” Dr. Maxine Hays, Washington public health officer, queried at an Early Childhood and Public Policy symposium in early January.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, led a distinguished panel of experts who summarized the scientific findings. The good news: Even children born into the highest-risk environments have the chance to surpass the odds if they have nurturing relationships.

Dr. Shonkoff confided his greatest trepidation: Science can help us identify these children, but access to effective intervention is essential. The panel had carefully described complex trauma: the pile-on combination of poverty, violence, substance abuse, chaos and unpredictability that undermines the babies’ safety, altering the development of their brains. The key to resilience: nurturing relationships.

We are so fortunate that here in Spokane a local group of psychotherapists, Marycliff Institute, has developed and tested an internationally acclaimed intervention based on over 50 years of research on attachment that begins to answer Dr. Shonkoff’s concern for an effective intervention strategy. The Circle of Security is a user-friendly approach for every parent to realize our universal goal: to nurture our children better than we experienced. Numerous Spokane agencies have participated as the testing ground for the development of the Circle of Security protocol and virtually every Spokane child-serving agency has adapted parts of the approach. Parents love it! It transforms them!

On the federal level, the response to Dr. Hays’ important question was the establishment of the Head Start program more than 45 years ago. Those of us who were students of developmental psychology welcomed this major investment in disadvantaged children, but were disappointed that the decision was to target 4-year-olds, the year before formal school, rather than the first year of life, the time that offers the greatest possibility of effecting change. We were encouraged, then, 16 years ago, with the initiation of Early Head Start for children birth-to-3. Spokane’s application was among the first of these programs funded in the nation. Now it was possible to have uninterrupted service to babies birth to 5, and have them arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.

In search of our community’s most vulnerable families, an Early Head Start classroom was opened at Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk, adding to the multiple services available to homeless teens, including teen parents. Since 1994 many highly vulnerable young families have been served by the rich blend of wrap-around caring available through Crosswalk and the highly skilled early childhood intervention available through Early Head Start. Most importantly, this group has had access to the Circle of Security because Dr. Kent Hoffman has volunteered his time to this group of parents.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, we now have a mini-crisis on our hands. Federal compliance standards dictate regulations that make it difficult for our local Head Start/Early Head Start administration to continue supporting the EHS program for Crosswalk parents. Under intense pressure to focus on high attendance and enrollment, they risk loss of federal dollars if government mandates aren’t fully adhered to. Given the previously mentioned history of trauma in these young parents (poverty, family violence, substance abuse and unpredictability) government mandates are often not met.

Faced with closing one of our community’s most successful programs for impacting high-risk families, we believe it is now time to come together and find a collaborative answer to this problem. Before taking the drastic step of losing an already flourishing intervention option, we think it’s possible for a coalition of local social service agencies (VOA/Crosswalk, Catholic Charities CAPA Doula Project, Lutheran Community Services, Circle of Security and alumni parents of Crosswalk/EHS) to work together with the Head Start administration at the Institute for Extended Learning to find common ground and develop a workable plan to increase enrollment and attendance with measurable goals to meet national standards. This crisis then becomes a win-win for these vulnerable parents and young children, offering them new opportunities for nurturing relationships: mentoring, counseling, family support and the continued resource of Early Head Start.

Mary Ann Murphy is executive director of Partners with Families and Children: Spokane.

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