The Power of a Continuum of Services for Children and Families

by Megan Carolan, Director for Policy Research

Last month, ICS shared the news that we’ve received funds from the Nonprofit Finance Fund to continue working with partners in Spartanburg, South Carolina around improved outcomes for families and children through the implementation of a first-of-its-kind Pay for Success project. Through our own work with the Social Innovation Fund, ICS conducted a feasibility study in Spartanburg and developed a continuum of services for families with young children – including home visits, parent education and support, and significant investments in community organizations providing early care and education. Rather than focusing on just one area of early childhood, this continuum approach will allow for differentiated services based on the needs of the nearly 2,000 families with children under age 5 living in the city of Spartanburg.
continuum-visualThe work we’ve already done in Spartanburg has been exciting thanks to the vibrant partnerships with the City of Spartanburg, the Mary Black Foundation, and a diverse group of service providers and advocates for families. The proposed continuum model utilizes evidence-based programs known at the national level; local programs with strong evidence of outcomes; and promising tech solutions to meet families where they are (More details on the model can be found in the feasibility study.)

Since this study, we’ve had conversations with other jurisdictions and advocates that all lead back to the continuum approach. Cities may see benefits of a quality pre-K program when their students get to Kindergarten, and it makes them wonder: what if families had enrichment options even before this? States hear success stories of what their home-visiting programs have accomplished with MIECHV funding – but wonder about how to reach more families, including those who don’t meet the definition of “at risk” but could benefit from a light touch.

Research tells us about the tremendous brain growth from birth to age 5, but focusing on just one age or one program model can miss opportunities for kids and families. We know from the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman that there is a decrease in the return on investment from programs offered later in life. We also know that early interventions focused just on children are not enough – children are molded by their experiences in early life, so programs that help parents navigate the difficulties of parenting and form strong, stable attachments can have benefits both at home and in the classroom. heckman-equation

A continuum model isn’t easy – it requires strong community collaboration and a community to both collective action and systems-building. While one organization or agency can usually spearhead this effort, community partners need to be on board and excited, and agree to share data across programs. This is particularly important in a potential Pay for Success project, where service providers are working towards goals on specific outcomes.  A continuum will look different in each area, tailored to fit the needs of local families and build from existing strengths.

Building from the momentum in Spartanburg, ICS is now working with other local efforts to develop a continuum of services for families. We can learn a lot from the success and difficulties of the place-based initiatives movement as well as from ongoing knowledge-sharing with other jurisdictions who have approached this work.

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