For more than 20 years, Family Futures has dedicated itself to becoming a statewide leader in identifying development delays in children. Its success is partly due to its Connections program, which provides frequent developmental screenings for parents with children under age 5, and, ultimately, helps improve their academic success.
“Connections is one of those cool programs because it meets so many different needs,” said Family Futures Executive Director Candace Cowling. “Parents right from the get-go are able to get support.”
Parents enrolled in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, program take the Family Futures Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) survey, which helps assess their child’s behavior. Family Futures staff reviews the results and provides parents with personalized feedback, parenting tips and referrals to community services and resources.
The questionnaires are a valuable tool, helping parents identify developmental issues in their children and improve academic success, Cowling said.
“I wanted my son to achieve dreams that I could never do, like finish college,” said Maria Plascencia, of Grand Rapids, who enrolled her son Javier into Connections to ensure he had an early start on success.
Once they completed the questionnaire, Plascencia and Javier were referred to a program that offered home visitation. During one of their sessions, family coaches diagnosed Javier with a speech impediment and directed Maria to a program, which ultimately improved her son’s speech, spelling and vocabulary.
“He has progressed a lot since then,” Plascencia said about Javier, now 7-years-old.
Plascencia said she also used the ASQ survey to monitor the development of her daughter, Leslie, 5.
“She’s doing really good,” Plascencia said. “Sometimes she’ll even try to correct her brother in his speech.”
Family Futures is filling a gap. In its 2015 annual report, 98 percent of parents said Connections helped them set expectations for their child and 84 percent of children who participated in or completed the program had improved developmental scores.
“A lot of times parents will say, ‘I totally knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what to do about it,” Cowling said. “Part of what Connections does is build parents’ confidence, because we don’t want parents to be overly concerned about things they don’t need to, but we do want them to be concerned about things they should be.”
Family Futures also provides similar services through its Healthy Start program, serving parents with a child under age 3. The program’s family support workers assist participants with parenting skills and financial literacy and connects them to community resources to eliminate barriers to care.
“It really meets the families where they’re at and continues with them through the first three years of their child’s life,” Cowling said of the program, which served 329 families in 2015.
Family Futures staff also actively work to educate residents on the importance of diversity and racial equity in West Michigan, which according to a 2015 analysis from Forbes Magazine ranks Grand Rapids near the bottom nationally in racial equity for African Americans.
The organization also is part of the Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network (GGRREN) – a volunteer community initiative to create a more equitable environment in Grand Rapids. Cowling said GGRREN members meet once a month to address racial equity issues in their community.
“It’s a great network of individuals who dedicated to creating more equity in our communities and ultimately reducing the disparities that exist,” Cowling said.
Family Futures also partners with Strong Beginnings, a community collaborative focused on improving maternal-child health in Grand Rapids’ communities of color, helping to support fathers in the Latino community, who face higher unemployment rates than whites, Cowling said. The organization is working with Michigan State University researchers and local community members to identify solutions.
“We really want to get the feedback from fathers and see how they’re viewing it,” Cowling said. “We’re conducting surveys and focus groups with the community and we’re in the process of pulling all of that data together and should have some findings to make a recommendation.”
Cowling said Family Futures also has expanded their partnership with the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, a system of local preschools serving vulnerable communities, to improve kindergarten readiness.
Families and children enrolled in ELNC’s Baby Scholars program, which offers parents free educational support to increase their child’s readiness for kindergarten, will be automatically enrolled into the Connections program. The partnership helps Family Futures connect with families they might not otherwise reach.
“Since we know many delays are presented prior to a child entering preschool, this new relationship ensures children are screened from age 0-3 when most delays are present,” Cowling said.
Plascencia credits Connections and the parent surveys with helping her monitor and nurture the development of her children, adding that she’s confident about their future.
“I’m really happy that my kids are doing good,” Plascencia said. “If I’m still receiving this kind of help, we are going to be fine.”