The clients Maria Dennis works with aspire to the things that all loving, devoted parents want for their children: good health, a safe home, success in school and success in life. “They want the best for their children like everyone does,” Dennis said.
But as the family program coordinator for the Family Partnership of Frederick County, a division of the county’s Citizen Services division, Dennis recognizes the multitude of obstacles her clients must overcome in order to provide their children with these opportunities.
Some are single parents; others have limited English language skills or education. Many report income that is above the federal poverty level but below the basic cost of living in Frederick County. Financial stresses, and in some cases, traumas from their own childhoods, can affect their ability to parent effectively.
Children who have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as food or housing insecurity, abuse, neglect or exposure to violence or substance abuse are at higher risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, substance misuse and limited work opportunities in adulthood.
But if ACEs can be addressed, and whenever possible, prevented, the outcomes change—for the individual and their entire community. The financial, health care and societal costs of childhood trauma can be reduced and young people are then better equipped to contribute to society as adults.
“The prosperity of our communities depends on the health and well-being of our children—all of our children,” said Barb May, director of the Family Partnership of Frederick County.
With a motto of “Strong Families, Strong Communities,” Family Partnership of Frederick County focuses on the prevention of childhood traumas. It provides service coordination, GED, English language and parenting classes for youth and adults, and early child development programs for their children from birth to four years. By teaching positive parenting techniques, creating economic opportunities through education and supporting the mental health needs of these families, the organization is dedicated to helping their clients prosper.
Family Partnership is one of 20 groups that participate in the Frederick County Interagency Early Childhood Committee (IECC). Members volunteer their time to support the healthy development and well-being of young children and their families through community collaboration.
In November, the IECC partnered with the Frederick County ACEs workgroup and the Child Advocacy Center of Frederick County to host a virtual workshop called “We Design 2020” that featured experts from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. Nearly 100 participants from 30 local agencies came together to discuss the science behind the development of young brains, including the impact of toxic stress from ACEs. The event was supported by the Maryland State Department of Education, Frederick County Office for Children & Families and the Mental Health Association of Frederick County.
“We Design 2020” invited child development advocates to brainstorm ways in which they could use the latest scientific and fact-based research to develop new approaches to reducing the impact of toxic childhood stressors. Participants were challenged to think about innovative ways to improve Frederick County’s future prosperity by nurturing resilient and successful children today.
For May and Dennis from the Family Partnership, that meant thinking about some of the greatest challenges their staff faces when working with local families. “We realized that we could use more training for our staff around the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Dennis said. “And we also identified the need to increase our mental health services to better help the children in our program.”
To help them with grant applications that focus on innovations in family engagement and healthy early childhood development, “We Design” participants were also encouraged to apply for one-on-one coaching with Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. The Family Partnership of Frederick County and the Asian American Center of Frederick were accepted and will begin working with the Harvard team shortly after the new year. The coaching services are funded by a grant the IECC received from the Maryland State Department of Education.
Despite the logistical challenges of hosting a virtual community forum with more than 100 participants, Leslie Frei, supervisor of Early Childhood Education and Judy Centers for Frederick County Public Schools, wasn’t surprised by the level of engagement “We Design” generated.
But the Harvard team might have been. “When we started planning the event, we told them that we wanted to use local facilitators even though [Harvard] had never done that before,” Frei recalled. “But they were so impressed by how the series went that they’ve indicated they may model some of their future virtual events after the way we organized ours and made use of the time.”