Having a baby is a life-changing event. For new parents, there are so many questions and sometimes those questions lead to deeper concerns about what is normal behavior and development.
For those parents, or others who may be concerned with lack of development in a young child, there are professionals ready to help both the parents and the child.
Michelle Harrison is one such individual. She works in the Peninsula School District as a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) and it’s her job to identify children who have special needs under the Early Childhood Development program within the district.
“I want parents to know there is a place they can call, where we won’t be judgmental about their circumstances or if their living room is clean,” Harrison said. “We’re here to help their child.”
As an FRC, she gets referrals from doctors, nurses, agencies, counselors — basically anyone who sees a child from age birth to 3 and notes a developmental concern.
Parents can contact her as well and there is no charge for her evaluation and referral services. Children older than 3 are screened through the school district’s preschool program. Her services are paid for through the federal government, Pierce County and the school district.
If a child needs specialized therapy — such as feeding, physical, occupational or speech — Harrison connects the parents with an early intervention agency in Tacoma called HopeSparks, a family resource center. From there, parents are connected to therapists who often make home visits to work with the child and the parents.
Harrison said HopeSparks bills insurance companies and there is no co-pay or deductible. There is a sliding fee scale based on what a parent can afford, but she wants no one to avoid reaching out based on financial concerns.
“If their child qualifies for early childhood development, and their income falls below the 200 percent of the poverty line, then I can help them fill out any financial paperwork,” Harrison said. “I don’t want anyone not getting the services they need because of financial needs.”
Miri and Neil Sampson connected with Harrison after their pediatrician confirmed a speech problem they were concerned about with their oldest child, Sawyer. The pediatrician connected them to the school district and that got them in touch with Harrison.
“Peninsula School District really came out of the woodwork for us,” Neil Sampson said. “We didn’t know this process existed.”
A developmental evaluation on Sawyer was completed and within two weeks of the first meeting, the family was working with a speech and occupational therapist. “The whole process moves very fast and efficient,” Miri Sampson said.
And she’s equally impressed with the results.
“We started occupational therapy 10 weeks ago and have had seven sessions. My kid did not talk at all and now he talks. He had extreme social anxiety about going into public places, and he can now function in most settings,” she said.
Miri Sampson has known Harrison since she was 5, when she was in a kindergarten class at Voyager Elementary School in Gig Harbor and Harrison volunteered in the class as a parent.
“Michelle’s been great every step of the way,” Sampson said. “She’s been advocating for us and keeps in constant contact through emails. She’s always assuring us and gets every resource (Sawyer) has needed.”
Harrison has been working at the school district for nine years, and the past three as an FRC, after the county cut the program from its budget in September 2012 and tasked school districts and other outside agencies to pick up the program.
“I think parenting is the hardest job in the word,” Harrison said. “You are given this baby and as a parent; you don’t know what is normal and what isn’t normal.
“You may be concerned your baby is crying a lot, not rolling over or not calming itself down.”
Harrison provides an intake and screening session with the child and parent and sends that to HopeSparks for referral. She stays in contact with the parents, making visits every six months, or more if the parent requests it.
Because of the relative isolation of the Key Peninsula and her work as a social worker, she’s been to clients who haven’t been across the Purdy bridge in three years, so she knows there are many who may not know the services are even available.
“If anyone has any concerns about their child, from birth to age 5 they can contact the district’s early childhood resources Phone Line at(253) 530-1168.,” Harrison said. Her direct line is (253) 530-1097 or parents can call the Early Childhood Referral line at (253) 530-1168. She also has her information on Facebook at PSD Early Childhood Connection.
“We set the plan with the parents and provide services in the child’s natural environment,” she said.
“No matter where you’re at — you can be unemployed or working full time — you can afford the resources for your child and their development,” Miri Sampson said. “Just talk to your pediatrician to get a professional assessment.
“It changed our whole life,” she said.