Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Early Intervention in Minneapolis: PICA Head Start's Supported Parenting Program


Lee Ann Murphy is Director of Administration at PICA Head Start, Minneapolis.

Cindy White is Special Services Coordinator.

Parents In Community Action, Inc. (PICA) provides Head Start and Early Head Start programs throughout our county. Born during the 1960s war on poverty, Head Start and most recently Early Head Start, seek to provide low-income preschoolers, infants, and toddlers a “head start” in development and, later, in school. Woven in the federal Head Start legislation is the principle that parents are the most important educators of their children. The belief in the primacy of parents, together with the federal Head Start mandate to ensure 10% of the enrolled children are children with disabilities, provides the foundation for PICA’s Supported Parenting Program. Referrals to the program come from parents, teachers, early childhood special education programs, doctors and public health nurses, rehabilitation centers, and from within the child welfare system.

Children entering the Head Start program who have a diagnosed disability and are in foster care and/or have a child protection worker receive priority slotting. While it is PICA’s mission to support and empower all of our families and develop appropriate opportunities for them, it is the work we do with families who have “special needs” children that we have addressed by designing a program that meets their special needs. We offer a place where they can find concrete answers to their questions about the law as it relates to disabilities and education, and where they can find friendship, acceptance, and support. The journey to provide the best services to children with disabilities and their parents began decades ago and continues today with our long-time partner, Courage, Inc. Courage, Inc. is a non-profit rehabilitation organization that empowers people with physical disabilities to reach their full potential in every aspect of life. But it was our participation in a national Early Head Start initiative called Special Quest, beginning in 1999, that impelled us to more directly address the needs of parents of Head Start children with disabilities.

Funded by the Hilton Foundation and the National Head Start Bureau, Special Quest brought PICA staff, Minneapolis Public School staff, and a parent whose toddler with a disability was enrolled at PICA together for an intensive week of discussion and goal setting. Core members of this group continued to meet for three years to set additional goals. The objective of Special Quest is to increase the number of infants and toddlers with significant disabilities enrolled in Early Head Start. Lessons learned with infants and toddlers influenced services to PICA preschoolers as well. That heroic parent who joined PICA and Minneapolis Public Schools in the Special Quest effort was the first member of our parenting support group, which started six years ago in partnership with Arc Hennepin-Carver. Arc connects people with community resources and helps them navigate service systems as well as being the voice for people with disabilities in public policy.

Why We Use the Approaches We Use

Because there are many community and school-sponsored support groups specific to parents of children with a particular disability (e.g. parents of children with autism) PICA chose to begin a support group for parents of children requiring enhanced services because of any “special need.” The goal of the support group is to “meet parents where they are at.” Head Start parent/child advocates are encouraged to promote the group and help to facilitate enrollment. If parents come to group one or two times then the group will keep them coming after that. The group is non-judgmental, nurturing, supportive and a safe place for parents to work out their frustrations with the special needs service systems with which they are involved. The Arc co-facilitator of the group is always available to help parents problem-solve and work through frustrating issues around school, medical coverage, respite care, and other issues.

Indicators of Success

The Supported Parenting Program meets every other week and grows in attendance every year. This success is made possible because of three very simple but time-proven practices:

  • Treat parents with the utmost respect, which includes greeting them at the door, listening to them and hearing them, and providing them with dinner and a babysitting stipend if babysitting on site is not feasible.
  • Have fun. Life is hard. Life with a child with a disability can be even harder. Life in poverty and with a child with a disability can be even harder still.
  • Allow parents to set the pace for the group; they know best what they want. Today they may have all the referrals and resources they need. Today they may just want to talk and share.

Through operating this program PICA has repeatedly learned the value of partnering. Partner. Partner. Partner. Partner with parents on an equal footing. Partner with other non-profits who share your mission – they have valuable resources for parents and children with disabilities. And partner with state and local organizations mandated to serve children with disabilities and their families.