A greater sum: Human services organizations finding success in collaboration

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— While experiencing some minor complications during her second pregnancy, south Routt resident Candace Vassalluzzo joined the Prenatal Plus program.

When she left, she had a healthy child, was involved in a food program, had health insurance and a doctor. She also felt like she had a network willing helpers in the form of women from the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

"They were just such a great support system," the single mom said. "It put everything in perspective and made me feel like it was not all my problem."

Vassalluzzo is one of the many mothers in Prenatal Plus. More than 90 percent of the mothers in the program get involved some sort of prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy.

That is just one of the statistics in the KidsCount! Report, a 10-year study on Colorado children by the Colorado Children's Campaign.

In the past decade, things like confirmed incidents of child abuse or neglect and the teen birth rate have decreased in Routt County while the number of mothers in a prenatal care program has increased.

The KidsCount! Report was designed to provide a statistical framework to support improvements in the lives of children in Colorado. In 1990, the Colorado Children's Campaign started collecting data focusing on child health, education and safety. In addition to providing a statewide overview, the data is broken down by the 63 counties.

In Routt County, the data is about more than 4,500 children younger than 18. Routt County statistics are good, compared to other counties, and many here credit a tight network of agencies that communicate with each other.

"There is a lot of collaboration, there's no question," Routt County Human Services caseworker supervisor Mike Sidinger said about services for children in the county.

Child health

Vassalluzzo was not alone in seeking prenatal care. Registered nurse Leslie Felts said the VNA Prenatal Plus program is very active, with 90.3 percent of pregnant mothers receiving prenatal care. That is up from 80.4 percent in 1994.

The program gets referrals from doctors, but also relies on word of mouth. Prenatal care has a direct correlation to low birth weight babies, Felts said. Routt County saw low birth weight babies drop to 7.1 percent of births in 1998, according to KidsCount!.

Vassalluzzo was referred by Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains to the VNA. Not only did that group refer her to a doctor, it introduced her to many programs she would have not known about nor taken advantage of, such as going to a counselor and baby groups for her daughter Taylor, who is now 18 months old.

"I thought I would be taking advantage of the system, but then when I saw what they provided, I was grateful," she said.

The Child Health Plus plan, which gives families who qualify affordable health insurance, had 79 out of 269 eligible children enrolled last year. To Felts, that's nowhere near enough.

"We have low enrollment," she said. "We have to do more to get families into health insurance."

The number of children qualifying for free lunch has increased to 11 percent of children in the county. Sue Birch, director of the VNA, doesn't see that as a negative. Instead, she likes the fact more parents are taking advantage of the program.

"It says to me they are not so destitute that they need TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) but need free lunch, where they are getting a healthy meal," she said. TANF is one of the programs that came out of federal welfare reform a few years ago.

Care and education

Routt County applied to be a pilot child-care community for the state of Colorado and the result was First Impressions, which brought early childhood organizations from across the county together in one board.

First Impressions not only wants to improve the life of children, but the life of families. A top priority is to help families to stay in the county, community liaison Renee Donahue said.

"It's real clear that we don't want young families to leave here because they can't afford to live here," she said. "It would change the whole community."

First Impressions' goals in 2000 include increasing business involvement with the board, establishing more ways to pay for child care, increasing wages for child-care workers and trying to reduce turnover in the local child-care industry.

Suicide

Routt County's suicide rate reached the alarming level of 1 per 1,600 people in 1998 more than three times the state average. However, those deaths were adults and suicide is not a problem among high school teens, according to KidsCount! The state report doesn't register statistics when there are fewer than three incidents in a county and there hasn't been a teen suicide locally in many, many years, according to Steamboat Springs School District psychologist Ray Koch.

"There's a bit of luck because of the odds, but we take it seriously and have intervention programs," Koch said. "We have a proactive approach."

Koch said Steamboat school officials have worked with students and other agencies like Northwest Colorado BOCES to develop a collaborative intervention program that reaches out to students before they reach the suicide-attempt stage.

"Typically their friends contact a counselor or a teacher. It doesn't have to be an attempt, just somebody feeling depressed. We really take something like seriously," he said.

Social services

There are four children in foster care in Routt County and there are many others who are back with their families because Routt County Human Services helped them work things out.

KidsCount! reported 8 out-of-home placements per 1,000 for 1998, which includes foster care, group homes, independent living situations, detentions and medical placements.

"We have a low rate of placement. We try to keep kids in the homes if they are problems we can work with and mitigate. We partner a lot with the mental health center," Sidinger, the caseworker, said.

There were 20 confirmed abuse or neglect cases in the county in 1998, however, which also includes adults who were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol when there was a child in the car. Sidinger said that number sounded low because there are unreported cases of abuse and neglect.

Teen pregnancy

The teen pregnancy rate in 1998 in Routt County was 9.6 pregnancies per 1,000 up from 1994 when there were less than three such pregnancies. But the '98 number was a dramatic decrease from 1991, when there were 25.8 teen births per 1,000. The Colorado rate is 30.2 births per 1,000 teens.

"It's still too high," local Planned Parenthood manager Amy Dickson said. "One of our goals is to reduce teen pregnancy."

Dickson said the 1998 statistic does not include pregnancies that were terminated or where delivery was made somewhere else.

Dickson said education is Planned Parenthood's method of prevention. Colorado law allows the group to dispense contraception to minors without parental consent, but Dickson said she always encourages teens to talk to their parents.

"We always recommend abstinence first and then we educate them on birth control, on STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and on condom use," she said.

Most of the efforts are concentrated in Steamboat, Dickson said.

Youth crime

Violent crimes among teens in the county are usually random and isolated incidents, according to officials.

Although KidsCount! does not cite them, there have been several violent crimes by juveniles in Routt County, including an incident in 1997 when several Steamboat youth beat a young girl.

"Violent crime in general is fairly low," Steamboat Springs High School resource officer Jerry Stabile said. "It's usually of a domestic nature."

Most of the time when youth are arrested it is for underage drinking, trespassing or fraud, according to Steamboat Spring Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays.

"I've always said that we have good kids here," he said.

Stabile has been at Steamboat Springs High School since 1997, after a community drug survey was taken and there was a sense that the youth weren't feeling valued.

"It was definitely not a reactive movement, it was a proactive movement," Stabile said.

He said the impact is that students are used to seeing a police officer.

Teens, however, do not have the same benefit of collaboration of agencies that younger children have. Members of local agencies agreed that more should be done to address the needs of teens and families.

"We have a pretty good safety net. We need to work on coordinator our efforts more," Grand Futures Coalition Executive Director Susan Phillips said. "There needs to be improved collaboration and involvement of teens to be part of the solution to the problems."

To reach Jennifer Bartlett call 871-4204 or e-mail jbartlett@amigo.net

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