OKEECHOBEE — If you’ve ever heard the saying, “It takes a village,” you probably know it is referring to the raising of children. Some families need more help than others, and no one can do it alone. This is where Healthy Families comes in.
Healthy Families is a program working under the Helping People Succeed Agency. It is one of many programs offered by Helping People Succeed and is the largest birth to age 5 program provided by the agency. Carolyn Moses, who has worked for Helping People Succeed for 20 years oversees the Healthy Families program.
The Healthy Families Program began in Martin County but was expanded into Okeechobee County in 2007. Essentially, Healthy Families is a child abuse prevention program, an evidence based, voluntary program for parents that are either expecting a baby or have a baby under the age of about 3 months. “The reason we enroll families during that period is because that is when families are most open to making changes or wanting to do better than maybe their parents did. Maybe they want to provide for their own children what they didn’t get from their parents,” said Moses.
In Okeechobee in an average year, they serve a couple hundred families. The main goal is to help parents overcome challenges that might have an impact on how they raise their children.
Funding for Healthy Families comes primarily through prevention dollars with the Department of Children and Families at the state level. They also have local cash and in-kind donations that help to draw down the state dollars. Children’s Services of Martin County provides some cash assistance. Big Lake Mission and Okeechobee Crochet Guild are two of the organizations providing in-kind donations. The crochet guild provides little crocheted outfits and blankets for each newborn to wear home from the hospital. They are used as a sort of welcome to the program, she said.
In Okeechobee, Healthy Families has one team — a supervisor and five home visitors, who are called family support workers. The support workers do the actual direct service work with the families. They also have a program manager, Moses, and an assistant program manager. Enrollment specialists work out of Martin County but travel to Okeechobee.
Families come to Healthy Families through a centralized intake system. Any expectant parent or parent with a newborn goes through a prenatal screening through Healthy Start and allows the information to be shared. They would then go through the centralized intake system, coordinated through Healthy Start.
Families are given the options of different parenting programs available to them in their community. Eligibility for different programs and services offered by various programs might appeal to different families. Healthy Start, Healthy Families and Parents as Teachers all offer home visits. Depending on the needs of the family, they may or may not qualify for all of the programs, but they can choose from the ones they do qualify for. After they complete the enrollment process, they are assigned a family support worker, who will provide the ongoing home visits.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the visits have all been virtual. Services are provided through the phone or by video — Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime, etc. The family support worker will also drop things off at the home of the family. This might be information about activities they will do on an upcoming visit or referral information or diapers or something else they need. Ideally, they would provide all visits in home, because that is where the family lives, and they can assess the home for safety and provide information on how to make things safe as the baby grows from an infant who does not move around to a crawler to a toddler who can get into so much more.
“The goal of the home visits and really the program itself is to help the family make a healthy attachment,” said Moses. This includes everything from information on home safety — coping with crying, safe sleep, poison safety, bathroom safety, water safety, pet safety, kitchen safety, choosing caregivers,etc. — to developmental screening for the children at different intervals. If there are any concerns in that area, Healthy Families would get the family connected with someone who can help, whether it is for speech or physical therapy or something else. The workers also look at the social/emotional development of the child, looking at the child’s communication skills, cognitive skills, gross motor, fine motor, personal skills like feeding themselves, holding a bottle, things like that.
The mothers are screened for signs of depression. The screening takes place during the prenatal period and then again about two months after the birth. The purpose is to get the moms linked up with supportive services as they need them. When they first come into the program, they complete a Healthy Families parenting inventory. This looks at depression but also at what the social supports are and what their sense of confidence is in their parenting skills. This helps them identify additional areas in which they could help support the family.
Goal planning is also touched on, so if needed, the family can improve its life situation, things like going back to school or job training or helping them find a job.
They make sure the family is connected with a medical provider so the children will get their well-child visits taken care of. This also cuts down on emergency room and urgent care visits, because the child has a primary care doctor.
Their is a mental health therapist on staff, who can provide counseling as needed.
All services provided to the families are completely free, and there is no obligation. The families are in the program voluntarily and can drop out at any time. It is not a court-ordered program, but they often receive referrals from the Department of Children and Families or Communities Connected for Kids. This means even if there is an active investigation going on, they can still provide services to the family. Healthy Families also receives referrals from others in the community. A pregnant woman in Martha’s House could be referred if she needs support. The Pregnancy Center might refer someone. Families can ever refer themselves.
The service population is families who have some type of risk. An assessment process looks at about 43 different risk factors — everything from childhood issues and trauma to current struggles like substance abuse or domestic violence. Language barriers are considered a risk factor because they could prevent the family from accessing community resources. Any risk factor present in the family could feasibly lead to abuse or neglect. Once a family enters the program, a plan is developed based on their unique needs. Families generally stay in the program three to five years. The program is not income based.
There are two thresholds the program tries to meet. First, families are enrolled in the program for at least six months, and 95% of those children will be verified free of maltreatment. “We always exceed that. We are usually up in the 99%,” said Moses. “We are talking about families with risk, so that’s pretty amazing.” Healthy Families Florida also tracks the families post graduation from the program. They check after about a year to see if the families are still verified free from abuse. This shows that sustained change has happened.
On an annual basis, the program touches about 6,000 lives over all the counties they serve, Moses said.
“Change takes time, and people do what they do because that’s all they know. If you’re raised in a situation, that’s your normal. That’s what you are familiar with, so that’s how you tend to parent. You do it the way you were parented, good, bad or otherwise,” said Moses. “We are here to help with that.”