Three community organizations are joining forces to help newborns in Hall County thanks to a $274,000 grant from the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
"The idea is to stop child abuse and neglect at the time they enter the universe," said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center. "When doctors are catching the babies, we're catching them right with them."
The community center will work with the Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Hall County Family Connection Network to reduce child abuse and neglect by approaching all first-time parents who give birth at the medical center.
The grant will help start a program called "System of Care."
Lewis Moss wrote the grant with Paige Ferrell, a program manager at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, and Mary Parks, executive director of Hall County Family Connection Network. The three began working on the grant more than a year ago.
Under the new program, every first child born at Northeast Georgia Medical Center whose parents reside in Hall County can have access to a network of services and programs around Hall County, Ferrell explained.
"We want to build an infrastructure for newborns and their parents to make sure the family has all the support they need once they come into the hospital," she said.
"That could include needing contacts with medical providers, such as a lactation consultant. There are a lot of opportunities out there, and we're very connected with other agencies that provide additional support."
To prevent child abuse and neglect at home, first-time parents will be assessed and evaluated.
"It's a long assessment tool, and if there are some red flags or indicators that are troubling, we'll refer them to our different services," Moss said. "It'll be for first-time parents because we hope the level of training and involvement with the first birth will prepare parents for a second, third or fourth baby. If we do the work on the front end, we won't need to help with the others."
Although the process may sound confusing or intrusive, Moss said she doesn't want to worry parents.
"We're creating a culture to look at every child so families know what to do. Statistics show how easy it is and how vulnerable families can be," she said. "Sexual abuse is extreme and horrific, but other forms of abuse are often benign acts based on parents not knowing. If there's a young mother who didn't have a great deal of support, she may not know what she hasn't been taught."
With the recession, Moss said she knew budgets would dry up for various agencies and she worried about counselors and community programs that help local young parents.
"Every agency has been cut," she said. "We needed to be proactive ... This grant comes at a perfect time because some of the staff involved in the new program were at risk of losing funds and therefore their jobs."
The assessments will look at families as a whole, including other adults and siblings that may be in the home. The idea is to promote child development, prevent juvenile delinquency and help children get the "best first start they can," Moss said.
"It's important that we not scare people when they're being approached because it really is an opportunity," she said. "There are no assumptions about where you live, and there's no judgement. We look at every child the same and with loving eyes because we want to protect them all."