Head Start Programs Identify and Provide Extra Support to Families at Risk

Free To Grow in New Britain, Conn., and Orange, Calif.

Field of Work: Strengthening families and neighborhood environments in high-risk, low-income communities.

Problem Synopsis: In the early 1990s, there was a growing consensus among researchers that substance abuse can have roots in early childhood. Yet studies pointed to certain factors that can moderate these risks, even for children growing up in adverse conditions: improved family functioning; a positive relationship with a caring adult outside the family; clear standards against substance abuse in the family; and willingness to seek treatment for family members who are abusing drugs.

In New Britain, Conn.'s North-Oak neighborhood, the focus of that city's Free To Grow project, nearly a quarter of the residents were living in poverty when the program began. Drug dealing and murders were all too common. So were substance abuse and family violence, but workers at the local Head Start agency did not ask families about problems of that nature. Those were subjects too personal and sensitive to raise.

Synopsis of the Work: Free To Grow—a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) from 1992 to 2005—supported efforts by Head Start agencies and their community partners to strengthen the families and neighborhood environments of high-risk preschool children living in low-income communities. The goal was to reduce the children's vulnerability to substance abuse and related problems in later life.

Free To Grow gave the Human Resources Agency of New Britain, which manages the Head Start program, a new approach to family assessment and case management—and the training and tools to implement it. Under Free To Grow, the agency began using a scaled, validated assessment tool—an instrument that quantifies a family's needs and strengths and, thereby, enables a more precise determination of the kind and level of assistance required.

Key Results: Free To Grow enabled the local Head Start program to provide higher quality, more professional services to this population—and to expand services to families with the greatest need. The agency instituted a new assessment and case management process, one that could more quickly identify families needing extra help.

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