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Flint couple's message to parents with kids under age 5: ‘Don't Wait. Evaluate.'
To watch LaBella Thompson Moore sleep, crawl happily on the floor of her family's Flint apartment or devour her favorite meal of baby food carrots, you'd never know the 8-month-old is at risk of developmental delays from the city's lead-tainted contaminated water.
Parents Latrice Thompson and Johnie Moore III say they're grateful LaBella is not showing any symptoms now.
But they still worry she may someday face the same diagnosis that currently confronts their nearly 20-month-old son, Jayceon, and their nearly 3-year-old son, Johnie. Health officials attribute exposure to Flint's water as the cause of delays in Jayceon's ability to walk. Meanwhile, Johnie is working to overcome speech delays, and LaBella gets regular evaluations to monitor her progress.
"We use bottled water for everything now, and as long as we have bottled water we'll make sure our children are taken care of," said Latrice.
"We're fortunate. We had our children examined early so we know what we're dealing with and how and where to go to get the help they need. What I worry about is all the less fortunate kids in Flint who don't have parents watching over them."
Call to Early On® Genesee eases burden
Latrice and Johnie credit their peace of mind to heeding the advice of health officials who urged them to contact Early On® Genesee County staff to schedule a free assessment and support services for the Thompson Moore children.
Early intervention is key when children are experiencing developmental delays. The need for evaluations of Flint children before they turn age 5 is a top priority now that local officials estimate as many as 5,000 infants and toddlers may be at risk from exposure to lead since the city's contaminated water crisis began.
"Without proper screening and intervention for developmental delays, children are at risk of experiencing conditions that can last a lifetime and challenge their ability to complete routine daily functions," said Lauren Heleine, an Early On® Genesee County service coordinator who is assigned to the Thompson Moore family's case.
The prognosis for LaBella, Jayceon and Johnie is excellent, Heleine said, though Early On Genesee County staff will continue to monitor each toddler's development along with the couple's 5-year-old daughter, Harmony, who shows no current effects from the city's water.
On a mission
Now Johnie and Latrice are sharing their message of hope with a simple appeal to all Flint parents with children under age 5: Call 810-591-KIDS and schedule a free assessment with Early On® Genesee County.
"When I talk to other dads, they say ‘We take our kids to the doctor all the time.' They're standoffish about calling Early On Genesee because they don't understand what it can do for them and their kids," said Johnie Moore, a Flint Central High School graduate who works two jobs as a warehouse manager at Sears and a stocker at the Toys R' Us store near the Genesee Valley Mall in Flint Township.
"The problem is they think getting help means getting assistance for paying their rent, utilities or diapers – anything else sounds like a waste of time," Moore said. "They don't realize how critical lead exposure can be in kids and that as a parent you can't always see the signs that there's a problem."
The number of parents and caregivers seeking evaluations for Flint children who are at risk of lead-related developmental delays from the city's water crisis has increased significantly since an education awareness campaign kicked off in 2016, say leaders of the Genesee Intermediate School District's Early On program.
Early On Genesee County offers early intervention services for children 5 years old and younger. There is no cost to families. All children who are on the Flint water line automatically are eligible. Even if a child is showing no obvious harm from possible lead ingestion, an Early On evaluation can provide emotional comfort to parents. The campaign's key message on TV ads and billboards – "Don't Wait. Evaluate." – urges parents and caregivers to call 591-KIDS and schedule a free assessment with Early On Genesee staff. The evaluation is just the first step in getting families connected to needed supports.
Speaking truth to doubters
For her part, Latrice Thompson reassures skeptical Flint mothers in her social network that calling Early On is easy and hassle-free.
Most important, she says, is explaining to doubting parents that their child's initial Early On evaluation can occur inside the home, outside the home, or at a local school or day care center.
"In Flint, when you hear ‘home visit,' that usually means something bad like child protective services is going to be in your business and coming in the house to take your kids," Latrice said. "That's totally not the case with Early On – they're not nosy. And I tell folks that without this program, we would not have known our kids are going to be OK."
"The first time we met Lauren she was so nice, and she told me I could contact her at any time," said Latrice, who scheduled her appointment when Labella was 4 weeks old. "After our first visit, we realized immediately that Lauren's only interest here is to help our family. It's like having a close friend. She just analyzes our children and helps us make a plan and set developmental goals for them."
"Anytime I have a question about our kids, I contact Lauren. We text a lot, but just knowing I can call Lauren if I need to also helps me a lot. That's what I'm telling all the moms and dads with young kids that I know have not called Early On yet. The visits we have are awesome."
Typically, children are referred to Early On by pediatricians or the Department of Health and Human Services. In response to the Flint water crisis and concerns about children's exposure to lead, Early On has expanded its level of screening and services in the city.
Peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth referrals between Flint-area parents and caregivers are also helping to boost calls to the GISD's child development support staff by building trust within the community, Heleine said.
"We can help coach you as a family because it's often hard raising children with developmental delays," she said.
The evaluation involves watching a child play in a natural setting, such as a living room, discussing with parents what behaviors they have observed in their children, answering questions to address fears and providing a friendly shoulder for families in stress," Heleine said.
"It's amazing to see the transformation when you meet a family and at first they're standoffish," she added. "But then as you get to know them better, they start to get comfortable and they begin to realize we just want to see their children grow up to be healthy, happy and safe."
Foundation for success
Latrice and Johnie say they have hope for their children's future now that they've overcome the pains of the past with Flint's water, which at its most severe caused severe skin rashes on their entire family from washing with tap water.
"We knew the water wasn't right, but we didn't know how bad it was," Johnie said. "We thought it was old pipes or something to do with our house because the bathroom smelled like an old swamp. But we have to look past the water now."
Today, Latrice is planning to re-enter the workforce, and in the meantime they prefer to focus on enjoying time with their children. Jayceon loves to dance. Johnie thinks he is a cartoon superhero, either a Power Ranger or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Harmony is doing well in school. Labella shows more independence every day.
"We just want to be the best mom and dad we can be and make sure we try to get the best for our kids with their education and jobs," Latrice said as Johnie folded baby clothes during a recent Early On visit to the couple's East Side home. "We don't knock Flint – there's a lot of opportunity here to make something of yourself."
Flint family successfully protected their son from exposure to lead poisoning in city's water, only to learn he's now at risk from eating household lead-based paint chips
Mom says: "I'm angry, but mostly at myself. I was aware of the water crisis. I just never thought our home would be a threat to my child's health"
FLINT – Misty and Dan LaBean tried to do everything right to ensure their infant son Holden and his two older siblings would not suffer from lead poisoning due to the Flint water crisis.
"We obviously were always aware of the Flint water problem, and our three children only drank and bathed with bottled water," said Misty, a Wisconsin native who owns a mobile pet services and grooming business, and whose Flushing High School graduate husband works two jobs in sales and supervision for Best Buy and Bass Pro Shops at the Great Lakes Crossing mall in Auburn Hills.
"I was really careful to comply with all of my doctor's orders throughout my pregnancy to ensure Holden's healthy delivery, and we only used bottled water with his formula" following his birth in May 2015, she said.
"Our two oldest children – Henry is 11 and Helen is 10 – they are perfectly fine and totally healthy. We expected the same for Holden because we followed all the precautions we were told to follow."
Help is free from Early On® Genesee
So the LaBeans were stunned to learn blood test results in 2016 showed Holden had a lead level nearly five times higher than the standard of exposure that allows parents, doctors, public health officials and early education professionals to take action.
Now the family is getting free help from the Genesee Intermediate School District's Early On® Genesee program to ensure Holden receives the proper care and guidance necessary while regularly evaluating the boy for possible developmental delays. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified and there is no cure for lead exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.
Flint's lead-tainted water wasn't the culprit for Holden's diagnosis, however.
Even though lead paint was banned in 1978, it still exists in older homes. Flint social services officials and the LaBean family agree Holden consumed chips of lead from household items such as their rental home's window frames and bathtub.
"When they told me about Holden's condition, I literally could not think straight because my thoughts were going everywhere," Misty recalled.
Today, she says: "I'm angry, but mostly at myself. I've felt like I was a bad mother.
"While I was aware that lead paint was an issue in older houses, I just never thought our home would be a threat to my child's health. When we moved in here, I never thought about that. Now I wonder how did not I not know. The irony is we're still hoping to buy this house – it's a good house and each of our children has their own room."
At least 4 million U.S. households currently have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.
In Michigan, an estimated 70 percent of homes were built before the 1978 lead paint restriction. Census data reflects that more than 34,000 Flint households likely contain lead-based paint.
Lead exposure is known to cause neurodevelopment deficits, developmental delays, and behavioral challenges, said Jamie Burnett-Pulido, an Early On® Genesee Expansion Program coordinator who is leading the support services effort for Holden and the LaBean family.
"It can potentially affect brain development in children," Burnett-Pulido said. "It affects several different things that impact them such as speech, language development and articulation, fine motor skills, high activity level, reduced problem-solving abilities as well as self-control and self-regulation. That's why getting evaluations for children before they are 5 years old is so important."
Research indicates that early intervention is key when children are experiencing developmental delays. The need for evaluations of Flint children even before they turn age 5 is critical now that local officials estimate as many as 5,000 infants and toddlers may be at risk from exposure to lead since the city's contaminated water crisis erupted.
"I worry all the time, because they tell me you may not see anything for years, but then it can exhibit itself later in Holden's life as a learning or behavior disorder," Misty said.
Early evaluations are key
The LaBeans turned for help based on a referral from the Genesee County Children's Healthcare Access Program (CHAP) to the Genesee Intermediate School District's Early On® Genesee program.
Early On® Genesee offers no-cost early intervention services for infants and toddlers, birth to 5 years of age, with developmental delays and/or disabilities.
Typically, children are referred to Early On® by such sources as pediatricians or the Department of Health and Human Services. In response to the Flint water crisis and concerns about children's exposure to lead, Early On® Genesee has expanded its level of screening and services in the city.
Now, all children from birth to age 5 who are impacted by exposure to lead qualify for free Early On® Genesee services, regardless if they are showing signs of developmental delays or disabilities.
All children who are on the Flint water line automatically are eligible. Even if a child is showing no obvious ill effects from possible lead ingestion, an Early On® evaluation can provide peace of mind to parents. The campaign's key message on TV ads and billboards – "Don't Wait. Evaluate." – urges parents and caregivers to call 591-KIDS and schedule a free assessment with Early On® staff.
Unfortunately, many families don't think to contact Early On® Genesee until they're trying to get to the source of major health problems.
"We're seeing that many parents are asking for their child's lead to be tested, and they are having it tested more often if there are signs or symptoms that the child is exhibiting," Burnett-Pulido added. "That's why we're asking all Flint-area parents and caregivers with children age 5 and younger to call us and schedule a free evaluation."
Hope for Holden
Holden shows no signs of lead poisoning's adverse impacts while he wrestles with his dog, listens attentively while his sister reads to him from his favorite story, "Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night," or plays with his Hot Wheels toy cars at the family's home on Flint's East Side.
Blood test results show Holden's lead levels have declined substantially, and his parents express cautious optimism about his progress that they attribute significantly to the care he's received from Early On® Genesee's services.
"Holden was the quietest 2-year-old I've ever met, but he's talking a lot more now," Misty laughed.
"He's getting more independent than he used to be," she added. "It does take more patience with Holden and you have to be more creative to get him to communicate, but it gets easier every day. Dan and I are blessed with Holden. We're going to help him as much or as little as he needs."