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Durham advocate focuses on teamwork to prevent child abuse.

By Ret Boney

DURHAM, N.C. [05.07.04] – While working with parents of special needs children, Jan Williams recognized the value of counseling families in the home, and concluded a similar approach could be beneficial in preventing child abuse.

So she took a job with Child and Parent Support Services in Durham, working with abused children and their families.

But damage already had occurred in those families, she says.

“If we could have gotten in earlier,” she says, “we could have prevented this.”

That conviction drove her to Healthy Families Durham in 1995, where she has been director for almost five years.

Primarily funded by Smart Start, the state’s public-private early childhood development program, Healthy Families is a program of the Center for Child and Family Health that aims to prevent child abuse and neglect by providing intensive in-home counseling services for Durham County’s most at-risk populations.

On March 30, Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina presented Williams with its Donna Stone Award, given annually since 1986 to people who have shown outstanding commitment to child abuse prevention.

When Williams received the award, she invited her coworkers onstage to receive it with her.

“It’s a real honor,” she says, “but it’s an honor for the whole team.”

Teamwork represents the approach she takes in her work and the appreciation she has for the “family support workers” she supervises.

Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, calls Williams an “unsung hero who has really made and impact,” and points to the support she provides her staff and the emphasis she places on best practices as two reasons Williams was chosen.

Instead of responding to reports of abuse that already has occurred, Healthy Families receives referrals from the high-risk OB/GYN clinic in Durham and from Duke Medical Center.

These two medical facilities screen for several risk factors for child abuse or neglect, and connect parents, usually young single mothers, to Williams’ organization during pregnancy or at the birth of a child.

Once that voluntary connection has been made, one of seven family support workers begins visiting the family weekly for up to three years to practice parenting skills and healthy interactions between parents and children, and conducts developmental assessments of the children each quarter.

Williams is pleased with the results of this approach.

Ninety-eight percent of the children now served are connected with a pediatrician and have received their immunizations, she says, and all of the special needs children are connected to appropriate services.

“We know we’re improving health and developmental outcomes,” she says.

Perhaps most importantly, she says, Healthy Families during the last fiscal year needed to make only four reports of abuse or neglect among some 117 high-risk families it served.

Williams believes family-support workers, three of whom speak Spanish and serve the 40 percent of the program’s families that are Hispanic, are key.

“It’s the warm and trusting relationship that makes the change happen,” she says.

Establishing that relationship and building trust can be consuming.  Doing it well, she says, means working as a team to support one another, sharing ideas and being committed to the goal of preventing child abuse.

“Once the damage is done, it’s a deep, lifelong wound,” she says, “so this work is very hopeful.”

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