Recipe for Growth: The Story of Family Connects

Mental health treatment for children in Weld County dates back to 1910, when teachers were concerned about students struggling with behavioral issues. While some of the behaviors that worried those teachers are laughable today (like chewing gum), a few stemmed from serious emotional and mental health problems and traumatic experiences.

We now know that our brains grow the most in the first five years of life, laying the foundation for physical and mental health across our lifespan. While normal, short-lived discomfort can be important to developing resilience, children exposed to chronic or toxic stress in those early years—poverty, abuse, caregiver depression or substance use disorders, for example—often suffer life-long consequences in learning, behavior, and health.

Through and after the Great Depression, local teachers, parents, public health workers, and physicians referred cases to what was then the Mental Hygiene Clinic. Kathleen Littler, an early advocate for children’s health in Greeley, said that parents were uncomfortable sending children to a mental health clinic and simply wanted their children “fixed”; clinic staff spent much of their time educating parents and the public about mental health and what was, and wasn’t, typical for children. But as time went on, professionals began to realize that it was more important to prevent those problems in the first place. 

According to Dr. William Conte, a private psychiatrist who was also a part-time director of the clinic in 1954, “every effort [was made] to handle problems early, at home, and where they arise, hoping to avoid institutionalization.” Clinic staff consulted with courts, the Public Welfare Department and Child Welfare, clergy, and community agencies. Schools, particularly Special Education departments, used the clinic’s psychological and psychometric services.

Through the middle of the 1900’s, lack of funding and other various challenges meant that the clinic couldn’t sustain comprehensive treatment programs. But by the early 70’s, invigorated leadership, a shift to non-profit status, and a commitment to follow the federal Community Mental Health Center mission generated renewed commitment to programs for children, mostly focused on adolescents. In 1971, Weld Mental Health opened a classroom where teens experiencing social and emotional challenges could attend school. Staff found various sources to fund services and expand presence in schools and train school social workers. 

However, services for infants and young children were handled primarily by local agencies focused developmental disabilities and child welfare such as The Community Board, the county, and public health department. Weld Mental Health did join the newly-launched Head Start Program in Ft. Lupton, and in the 70’s and 80’s, efforts began to identify and help young children who were victims of sexual assault or incest in the community, despite long-standing cultural taboos.

Janis Pottorff, retired Program Director of Family Connects at North Range, says that services for infants and young children began transforming in the 80’s and 90’s. Different agencies collaborated on, but sometimes duplicated, efforts. Problems once considered medical in nature or isolated, like trauma, were now seen as being inseparable from the social and emotional as well as the physical health of the child. State and federal laws regarding inclusion and institutionalization were also changing. As research into brain development, neuroscience, and our knowledge of trauma grew, so did community response: using this new understanding, professionals such as Janis came together to identify gaps and inefficiencies in our community and wrote grants to address them. 

At that time, Family Connects was not a program or set of programs in one particular agency, it was a community initiative built on a belief that using a developmental and relational lens could transform behavioral health services for little ones. This initiative evolved in the community to meet a range of early childhood mental and physical health needs, branching from one innovative program to the next to fill gaps. 

Now a program of North Range, Family Connects is a network of services for children 0 to 6 that takes these approaches to a new level. Encouraging families and children to build stronger supports and habits, these services focus not on ‘fixing’ the child but supporting the adults who care for them. The Family Connects teams can be found educating, consulting, and supporting caregivers and families in a variety of settings that include daycares, homes, schools, agencies, as well as in clinic offices—all based on the truth that what helps a baby grow into a healthy, resilient child and adult is predictable and responsive relationships. Staff help caregivers understand the “serve and return” relational interaction that is so critical to a baby’s brain development, as well as the child’s abilities to process and mirror their caregivers’ emotions. 

Family Connects knows when families are given the opportunity to develop their strengths and the support to address toxic stress, relationships—and the children who depend on them—can thrive. 

To learn more about Family Connects, visit Family Connects Early Childhood Services | North Range Behavioral Health

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