Allen County court launches early childhood program to target at-risk children in infancy

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FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Looking at a way to improve early childhood development to stave off later delinquency, Allen Superior Court Judge Dan Heath is announcing a new program targeting at-risk children in their infancy.

The pilot program called BrightStars might be the nation's first early childhood development program sponsored by a court, according to a news release from Allen Superior Court's Family Relations Division.

"There has been a great deal of new scientific findings indicating the tremendous brain growth that takes place in an infant, more than we ever thought," Heath said in the release. "The so-called 'return on investment' for early childhood development programs has been demonstrated by longitudinal studies over the past 40-plus years. Children who have had the benefits of good early childhood development programs are more likely to become good, happier, productive citizens."

A number of community agencies have been working alongside Heath and staff from the Allen County Juvenile Center for months to develop the program: Lutheran Social Services, United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne Urban League, SCAN, Associated Churches and educators from Manchester University and IPFW.

Lorri Rowe, program administrator for SCAN's Healthy Families Allen County, said Heath's new venture is not a duplication of services, even though he is making use of ideas and practices in similar programs already in existence.

Entrance into the program for families will begin in Heath's Title IV-D courtroom, which is where a child's paternity is established prior to setting up child support payments and a visitation schedule.

This particular area is somewhere a parent might fall through the cracks for needed early childhood intervention, Rowe told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1AxSwpn ).

"Sometimes it's where you are in your need right now, and his addresses the need right now," she said.

A parent may have been offered Healthy Families or Early Head Start programming but declined for whatever reason, thinking they might not need it. But when they are in court, trying to establish visitation and custody, they might find the situation is stacking up against them, Rowe said.

According to the plan for the program, parents can learn about ways in which an infant is born capable and ready to learn. If they wish to join the program, they will be directed to the Boys & Girls Clubs' Fairfield Avenue campus.

"The parents are the most vital part of the program," Heath said. "We can make suggestions based upon the newest information we have on infant brain development."

Heath also plans to use students from area colleges majoring in social work or early childhood education to assist a yet-to-be-hired program coordinator in working with parents, infants and siblings.

The offering of such real-world experience to students is a good idea and of great future benefit to other programs, Rowe said.

"They will have some experience working with families," she said.

The first order of business is to hire a program coordinator to make accommodations for the program at the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Heath hopes the program's first sessions can begin by late October or early November.


Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net

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