BERLIN – Investing in early childhood development may be Coos County's best economic development strategy. Studies have shown that every dollar spent on early childhood development yields a seven to 10 percent return on investment. An investment, experts point out, in the region's future work force and leadership.
For the past five years, an alliance of Coos County non-profit organizations, health care agencies, family support services, and educational institutions have worked together to focus on improving physical, social, and cognitive development in kids from birth to age five. The effort has been financially supported by $5 million in funding from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the N.H. Charitable Foundation.
The Coos Coalition for Young Children and Families held an informational session Thursday to update community leaders and legislators on the multi-disciplinary coordinated approach being piloted in the state's northern most county to support young children.
"It's really impressive to see this work," said Kim Firth, program director for the Endowment for Health, who attended to talk about the work of her state agency.
Coos Coalition Project Manager Cathy McDowell said the Tillotson Fund took a risk five years ago in making a long-term commitment to the effort. She said the Fund looked at the research that showed there were significant and long-term benefits from focusing on the positive growth and development of infants to age 5.
Positive experiences shape brain architecture and a strong foundation in early years improves the odds for positive outcomes. Steve Rowe, president of the Endowment for Health, said almost 85 percent of a child's brain is formed by age 3, including key sensory, language, and cognitive function. Data shows that children who lack the necessary literacy and language skills by fourth grade, don't catch up unless they receive intensive intervention.
McDowell pointed out that children represent the region's future work force and leaders.
"The future prosperity of New Hampshire depends on our ability to steward the next generation who will live, work, and lead in our state," she wrote in an informational paper handed out at the session.
The hope is that the focus on Coos children will also brand Coos County as a place to raise a family and help attract young families to the region.
At a time when the state's population is aging and the birth rate declining, McDowell said it is important to act now.
"Now's the time. We just don't have any more time to waste," she said.
The coalition has brought together the various agencies to work together to develop some shared strategies, goals, training, and measurements for young children.
McDowell said there are 1,558 children under six years old in the county and a main goal is to do annual standard developmental screenings of every one. The coalition has screened about 20 percent of the total number.
Other goals include screening mothers and children for depression, training early child providers, and getting providers and home visitors to use shared strategies that have been proven successful by research.
Bridget Laflamme, health educator at Coos County Family Health Services, described the 'Reach out and Read Program' that provides kids with age appropriate books at wellness visits and stresses the importance of parents reading to children. Since 2009, she said the program has given 4,559 books to kids during the visits.
Sue Watson of the Family Support Program said since 2013 there have been 78 clients in the parenting program and she reported 98 percent made improvements in their parenting skills.
Sue Cloutier, director of the Child Development Center at White Mountains Community College and SAU 20 Superintendent Paul Bousquet spoke about professional development efforts for early child education providers to ensure "all are on the same page". Bousquet noted that children have more needs today than even five or ten years ago.
"There's so much going on in the world and so much going on in life," he said.
Kathy Keene, coalition project coordinator, described the 'Coos Watch Me Grow' initiative – a developmental, social/emotional screening program for young kids. Training was provided to both parents and providers on the screening questionnaire used by parents to track their child's development.
Charlie Cotton, area director for Northern Human Services and Adele Woods, CEO of Coos County Family Health Services, described the maternal depression screening initiative. The pair said research has shown if the parent is clinically depressed, it significantly impacts the child's development. Treatment will decrease the symptoms in most cases but few get treatment.
Woods said her organization has started incorporating screening for maternal depression into routine health care. Since October, Woods said 70 women have been screened with two positive findings. She said the coalition hopes to expand the screening to Colebrook and Lancaster.
The Tillotson fund also paid for an infant mental health team at Northern Human Services, which provided services to 201 children last year; allowed WMCC to improve the network of child development center directors and teachers; and provided full scholarships to Plymouth State University for three people who earned degrees in early childhood education with a requirement that they will work in Coos County for at least two years.
"This coalition is very unique in the state," said Family Resource Center Executive Director Jim Michalik. Michalik said during his days as a family court judge he was frequently frustrated at the lack of resources to try and help kids who suffered childhood trauma. He said the effect of that trauma is usually not containable but spills over to the community and the school.
He said the collaboration behind the coalition is rare in the state and added that Coos hopes to extend it further to include law enforcement, teachers, and anyone who touches a child's life.
"That's our goal – to reach out," he said.
Kristen Scobie of the N.H. Charitable Foundation noted the Tillotson Fund committed to spending a total of $10 million split evenly between two areas - early childhood development and economic and business development in Coos County. This March the fund pledged an additional $1.3 million.
She said demographics point out the need for the focus on economic and early child development. New Hampshire is first in the nation in the increase in child poverty from nine percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2013. Child poverty in Coos County is highest in the state at 21 percent. Information about the coalition is available at www.investincooskids.com.