In 1988, an enlightened group – from the Palm Beach County school system, welfare system, and St. Mary’s Hospital – took to heart Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” They found a way to get services to “the poorest and sickest” babies born at St. Mary’s Hospital. Some 70% of the babies born in the hospital’s neonatal unit were not receiving follow-up services after discharge, despite being at high risk of developmental delays, disabilities, and later learning issues. Historically, these same children were showing up in the school system with significant developmental delays which could have been avoided through early intervention.
Four people from systems that needed to address this ongoing issue met on September 23, 1988. Donna Allen, HRS Developmental and Diagnostic Services Coordinator; Diane Kornse, coordinator for the school district’s Child Find services; Kathy Winn, Early Intervention Specialist from HRS’s Developmental Services office in Tallahassee; and Ray Foster, a consultant from Therapeutic Concepts, Inc., in Tallahassee, comprised the think tank. They enlisted the expertise of Dr. David Kanter, neonatologist at St. Mary’s Hospital, who oversaw the care of the sickest babies born there.
What was needed, it was decided, was an independent case management service to help families of children with disabilities, delays, and those at high risk, navigate the myriad of services they needed to help their young children. Because so many agencies and programs dealt with only one aspect of the issue – screening, identification, planning, or service provision – the group was seeking a way to integrate those services in an interagency initiative. It was felt that a family-centered case manager, who worked for an agency that provided no services except case management, would be more able to focus on the family in a more systematic and functional manner without a vested interest. The case manager could focus on all the family’s needs related to the infant’s development and could then advocate for needed services on behalf of the family.
They also recognized that, to be effective, this case management plan and implementation required broad-based involvement of the various social units in the county, funding sources, service providers, elected officials and community representatives.
With all these considerations in place, Children’s Case Management Organization was incorporated on October 17, 1989, and staff was in place on April 1, 1990.
As a result, and with funding from the then-newly-created Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, Children’s Case Management Organization, Inc., (CCMO) began its services to families in April 1990. CCMO began working with families who had children born in St. Mary’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit and who met financial and medical criteria – in essence, to the poorest and sickest babies and their families. Family service coordinators were trained on advocacy to take families through the social services maze.
Within two years, CCMO was asked to expand services to the Glades and was serving children birth to five years of age who were at risk of developmental delays. The organization was also serving families expecting a child and having medical complications, or psycho-social issues, that could put their unborn child at risk of premature delivery. The agency received referrals from families, agencies, the welfare system, hospitals, Healthy Start, and the Early Intervention Center.
In 1994, CCMO expanded services to Delray Beach in a collaborative project with the Delray Beach Housing Authority and the Family Services Center at Carver Middle School. A year later, CCMO began working with children at three additional schools in the Schools Interagency Program that worked with children who are medically involved, drug exposed, at risk of abuse and neglect, substance abuse, delinquency, and/or teen pregnancy.
The unexpected-yet-welcomed benefit of this newly-established, independent case management organization, was that it also brought to light issues and gaps in the system meant to provide services to families of children with disabilities, delays, and those at risk. It provided the opportunity to create a more seamless system that met the needs of these struggling families. More and more financially-strapped families with children in need of services were receiving them at the earliest ages when the most progress is possible – ages birth-to-five.
CCMO officials also learned more and more about the benefits of having services that were family-centered and provided in the families’ natural settings – not in medical centers or offices. They were lessons that brought the organization to maturity and set the stage for its future and the direction for the next generation of social services provision in general in Palm Beach County.
To more completely reflect its mission and goals, and to enable the full community to quickly understand them, the organization in 2005 began doing business as Families First of Palm Beach County. It has never wavered from that mission, and it pioneered the provision of family-centered services that include family input in the decision-making process about what they need. It began the philosophy that services should be provided in the families’ environment in order to be most effective. Families First also learned early on that the issues families face change over time and the organization develops and tweaks programs to meet those changing needs.
Today, Families First of Palm Beach County has expanded its focus to include children from birth to 22 (those still in school) and their families, with programs covering health (TOPWA), mental health (Behavioral Health Services), family strengthening (Healthy Families, Kin Support Project, Child First) and housing (Bridges To Success).
More than 40,000 children and families have benefited from our services, thanks to our enlightened founders who recognized the value to families, and our entire community, of prevention and early intervention.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” — Frederick Douglass, Statesman