• $4.2 million grant targets children in two St. Louis ZIP codes

    St. Louis Post Dispatch -  January 15, 2013 7:00 am  •  By Nancy Cambria nancy.cambria@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8238

    ST. LOUIS • For decades, an area spanning 4½ square miles in north St. Louis has statistically been one of the cruelest for young children.

    The children of ZIP codes 63106 and 63107 are nearly twice as likely to be born to teen mothers as the national average, while also having low rates of prenatal care. Crime, poverty, substance abuse and parental incarceration rates are high across the area’s 17 neighborhoods.

    Consequently, many of the children struggle to keep up in at school, and sometimes go hungry or even homeless.

    Today, these St. Louis children will get a boost when local child advocacy leaders announce a $4.2 million federally funded initiative to target the social and emotional needs of children under 8 in these ZIP codes. The area to be served spans roughly from Delmar Boulevard in the south, to Highway 70 on the east and north, with western boundaries at North Grand and Fairground Park.

    Sue Stepleton, director of a policy forum at Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work, said the grant, awarded in partnership to the state Department of Mental Health and a consortium of child welfare representatives in St. Louis, was concentrated in a small area to have a higher impact.

    “It’s really the state saying, ‘We need a new way to learn from communities what’s going on,’” she said. “So here is a significant amount of money directed at a very targeted area at extraordinary risk.”

    Stepleton, former head of Parents as Teachers International, was a sponsor of the grant application and will head up a child wellness council to oversee the implementation of the program.

    The program’s goal is two-fold: First, address basic social, cognitive and emotional health needs of an estimated 1,335 young children from the 17 neighborhoods. That’s about half of the children that age living in the area. The funding, distributed over five years, is expected to amount to $2,547 per child.

    The money will be used to screen children for health, developmental and behavioral issues. Families will then be offered services and home visits.

    Secondly, the neighborhood will act as a sort of laboratory to build a model of emotional care for poor children that can be replicated elsewhere.

    The grant, called Project LAUNCH, was awarded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Last year, Boone County was awarded a similar grant — the only other in the state.

    Sharon West, director of the of Grace Hill Clinic, says the clinic sees firsthand the dilemma of treating impoverished children from the St. Louis ZIP codes.

    She said young children were often given immunizations and treated for asthma and nutritional issues at the agency’s Water Tower Health Clinic, situated in the grant coverage area. But health professionals there often detect depression and other emotional issues in their young clients. Those typically go untreated and can lead to tantrums, acting out and poor social skills that hinder them in school and later in life, West said.

    “There is just so much environmental exposure to the things that are going on with the adults in their world,” she said. “And they can’t really go in another room to get away from it or safely go outside and blow off some steam.”

    The grant hopes to deliver services to the children through regular home visits by the Nurse Family Partnership and Parents as Teachers. Grace Hill Water Tower Medical Clinic is expected to be a primary provider of screenings from birth forward. Those screenings will look for developmental delays as well as other risk factors, including domestic violence, mental illness, parents who are incarcerated or have fallen into substance abuse.

    Stepleton said the grant money would also develop training programs for professionals in fields ranging from education to child care and medicine, on the challenges children and parents face.

    She said most parents and grandparents resisted help, fearing they could lose their children to state custody. Gaining trust in the community will be a key component of the grant, she said.

    “People fear the child will be taken away or that the person can’t live their lives without scrutiny,” Stepleton said, noting: “We want to really communicate through Project LAUNCH that help is available and that it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent and that everybody needs help with their kids.”

    Vision for Children at Risk, situated on Grand Boulevard within the grant area, has been tracking child welfare statistics by ZIP code for years.

    Director Richard Patton said the two area codes were chosen for the grant because they, along with 63113, consistently ranked among the three worst for children in the state.

    Yet, the existence of Grace Hill’s Head Start program and its health clinic continue to be bright lights for the ZIP codes, he said.

    Grace Hill gave the neighborhood a natural starting point at which to administer services funded by the grants, he said.

    Patton said the project had the potential to place mental health of young children at the forefront of child welfare policy.

    “I think there will be impacts through the metropolitan area and the state regarding child policy,” he said.