IRIS Grant

During the coronavirus pandemic, our youngest children and their families are facing unprecedented challenges and managing household stress. Data indicates that amidst COVID-19, more than 40% of households with young children are worried about paying for basic needs like food or rent.  Additionally, nearly two-thirds of caregivers feel they have lost emotional support since the start of the pandemic.

In Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties, even before the pandemic, children and families within the three counties faced significant challenges in terms of poverty – which often limits access to services and basic necessities.  According to data from the Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map (IECAM), a data project funded by the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Human Services, there are 9,572 children under the age of 5 in the 3-county area.  Of these, 49% of Whiteside County children, 51% of Ogle County children, and 35% of Lee County children reside in homes earning less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. 

There are also a significant number of children under age three with developmental delays or disabilities.  According to IECAM data, the three counties average 3% of children under age 3 who are served by the Early intervention program.  Additional challenges faced by families in the three counties include: 1) high demand for services provided in Spanish and the limited number of qualified providers who offer services to this population; 2) the large rural area and the lack of access that families have to public transportation or reliable transportation; and 3) frequent relocation and mobility of families within the three counties.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, local home visiting programs were a critical link for new and expectant parents, providing one-on-one support at no cost to eligible families to promote infant and child health, foster educational development and school readiness, and help prevent child abuse and neglect.  Research tells us that the most rapid period of brain development occurs within the first three years of life, laying the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.

Now more than ever, home visiting is an essential service for families as they navigate social isolation, economic uncertainty, the challenge of balancing work with limited access to child care, and other unique and heightened stressors brought on by the pandemic.  While challenges abound, local home visiting providers, as participants in the Sauk Valley Early Childhood Education Coalition, have worked collaboratively on early childhood and family education, care, and services; as well as other coordinated care efforts. Collective impact work and continued collaboration on these issues are a priority.

The Sauk Valley STARS Early Childhood Education Coalition and their home visiting partners, Parents as Teachers First Years, Healthy Families, and Early Head Start, are pleased to announce that they are partnering with the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development to implement coordinated intake through the Integrated Referral and Intake System (IRIS) in the 3-county region.  This project will focus on improving access to a continuous, equitable, and high-quality early childhood system that enables children, with the support of their families and communities, to grow up safe, healthy, happy, and ready to succeed.

The Regional Office of Education #47, serving Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties, will be the intake hub for the IRIS Coordinated Intake System which is slated for roll-out later this year.  Referrals will be accepted for expectant parents and families with children under age three who reside in Lee, Ogle, or Whiteside Counties.  The goal is to identify and recruit families who would most benefit from home visiting services.  All families who are referred will receive a needs assessment and children will receive a developmental screening.  Prior to the IRIS roll-out, referrals may be made by calling the Regional Office of Education at 815/625-1495 and asking for the Home Visiting Program.

Now is the time to support young children and ensure they have access to high-quality services during these critical years. By investing in young children early and focusing on the prenatal to three years, we can see higher returns and reduce the need for more expensive supports later in life.  

Lois Meisenheimer

Early Childhood Coordinator, Regional Office of Education #47