When Alex Valadkevich (40) and his wife Eugenia (36) went to register the birth of their daughter Nina in Kilkenny city more than three years ago, they just happened to pick up a leaflet advertising the Lifestart programme.
"We had a brand new baby and Eugenia said why don't we ring them and see what's the story with the programme; maybe they will help us with Nina," says Alex, a chef from Belarus who has been living in Ireland since 2001. "Any advice and help with a newborn baby is always welcome."
The Carlow/Kilkenny Parents Support Programme delivers the Lifestart scheme to families for free. Since signing up for it, the couple have had a home visitor, Margaret Lacey, coming out to them once a month and she’s “like family now”. She explains what they are likely to see in Nina’s development over the next few weeks and how they can respond and encourage it.
Firstly, the programme is “brilliant” because they come to your home at a time when it’s difficult to get out with a baby, says Alex. The other thing he really likes about it is that, unlike visits to, say, a public health nurse or doctor, “they are not assessing, they are giving you a heads up on what is going to happen”.
So much is going on in the first three years of a child’s life, he points out, and Lifestart helps parents tune in to the changes. The couple see it as an investment in the future of their daughter.
“The more we work with her now, and the more education for development she will get, the better she will get on later in life, and she can contribute to the country and society even more.”
Through Lifestart, Alex heard about other programmes and, being open to anything that might help them become better parents, he attended a Parents Plus group course over six weeks.
“Most of the people doing this programme, they don’t have big issues. They are not seeking help, just looking for more information,” he explains. The focus was on concentrating on children’s efforts and good behaviour, and trying to deal with issues without negativity.
In a group setting you hear how other people are dealing with similar things and you learn from their expertise with their own children. “You realise you are not alone – it becomes less stressful.”
Alex went out to the course because Eugenia, who is also from Belarus, has only been here since 2013 and did not feel her English was good enough. She was also breastfeeding Nina, so it was harder for her to get out. He is very grateful things turned out that way. If she had been the one attending, it would have been her rather than him reporting back on what went on.
“I would have listened to her and would probably have missed half of it – being a man,” he remarks. “Because I have to do it, it is better for me because I am the first receiver of the information. It is beneficial for the family because we are two parents on the same page.”
He also thinks it is good for their relationship as they are “working as a team” for their daughter and they communicate more now on every aspect of life. Without the programme, he thinks he would have followed a more traditional male role, “putting nails in the wall and bringing money home”.
As he and Eugenia just stumbled over information about Lifestart in the first place, Alex is passionate about trying to spread the word about how there are community supports like this for parents. He was one of the speakers at a recent conference organised by Tusla, the Family and Child Agency, to highlight the role of parents in improving outcomes for children, as part of its Prevention, Partnership and Family Support (PPFS) programme.
For many people the mention of Tusla brings to mind child protection and intervention. And it is of course "in loco parentis" for more than 6,000 children taken into State care – most of whom live with foster parents.
However, the agency, which was established in 2014 to take over that child welfare role from the HSE, has a wider brief.
"Supporting parents is core business for Tusla," says Dr Aisling Gillen, programme manager for its PPFS. The 2013 Government strategy "Investing in Families: Supporting Parents to Improve Outcomes for Children" signalled the intention that Tusla would put more focus on early intervention and prevention, "working with parents collaboratively and supportively", she explains. It already funds "a huge range of parenting support activity both universal – what we call top-up parenting advice and support – and then moving into more intensive parenting support when families are more in trouble, through the child protection and welfare system".
It has 106 family resource centres around the country, along with two outreach centres, but also works with many voluntary agencies, such as Barnardos and Daughters of Charity.
“We fund them to provide a lot of this parenting support work on our behalf and in partnership with us because very often the families they are engaged with are the families we are engaged with,” says Gillen.
Tusla is undertaking a lot of organisational work to co-ordinate services better, to get feedback from professionals working on the ground about what’s needed and to let parents know what is available. It has recruited 104 “parenting support champions” among professionals already working in this area to help raise awareness.
Family resources are “patchy”, acknowledges Gillen and as part of the strategy they are looking at what is needed as a minimum in every part of the country. At the moment, what’s available in terms of, say, parenting courses, differs from county to county. Take Co Donegal for instance, where the Lifestart programme, which the Valadkevichs are finding so useful in Kilkenny, is offered to all first-time parents, as well as other families who are referred by social workers.
In Co Mayo, says Caroline Jordan, the Regional Implementation Manager for PPFS, the Common Sense Parenting Programme is being used. Public health nurses deliver the group sessions over six weeks and any parent in Mayo with children aged between two and five years or between six and 16 years can apply to attend one.
Meanwhile, in a Border county, Parenting Monaghan, she says, has developed within the past year and it is using the Parents Plus programme in its countywide approach to offering family support. “There is a huge amount of parenting activity going on,” stresses Gillen, mentioning also the Incredible Years programme that is run in parts of the country and Strengthening Families, which was first implemented in Cork in 2007. The Midland Area Parenting Partnership offers free Triple P courses in Cos Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath, news of the scientific evaluation of which featured in these pages last year.
Another, very targeted, approach that Tusla has adopted is “Meitheal”, a parent-led, “wrap-around” initiative. It involves drawing in professionals from various aspects of a child’s life. For example, in the case of a troubled teenage boy who is missing a lot of school, it might involve a teacher he gets on well with, somebody from the addiction services, a parent support worker, etc and the boy would be invited to attend team meetings too.
"The parent identifies the help that they need and we bring together the people to support that parent, to work out a plan for that child and the agencies commit to what they can to do to provide support," says Gillen. "That is working really well on the ground and it is being researched by the Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway. The interim results are very good."
Meitheal is being seen by parents as “giving them help when they need it and also empowering them to ask for help when they need it”, she adds.
The advice to parents who might be looking for more information or support is to contact their nearest family resource centre to find out what is available. There is also the Parenting24seven section of Tusla’s website, where lots of topics relating to different stages of a child’s development are covered. Tusla is very keen to work with parents in the community, making sure that from their early days and right through all the different stages of parenting, they don’t feel alone, adds Jordan. “It’s there for them and for them to understand they should be offered support, as well as know where to find it.”
Although the Lifestart programme will finish for the Valadkevichs when Nina is five, Alex and Eugenia intend to continue their parent education. They now know where to find information about programmes appropriate to their daughter’s development stages and need no convincing about their value. “We can see the results,” adds Alex. “We can see how Nina is developing and how great she is – it is just pure joy for us.”
For more information: tusla.ie. email@example.com