Central Referral Systems Help Reduce Contributors to Family Toxic Stress

Parents and other caregivers often ask their children’s health and early care providers for parenting advice. They may also trust these professionals to offer reliable information about how to get help with unsafe or unstable housing situations, food access, and other social and material needs. However, these providers are not necessarily experts in helping families navigate the community service sector. Families report frustration when they cannot access referred services in a timely, efficient manner. To address this challenge, many communities are increasing investments in call centers or online searchable databases to help connect families to service providers and other local resources. These community-based central referral systems can have different functions, such as managing a referral network, providing service directories, and helping coordinate the referral process. For this study, we focused on the Help Me Grow system model, which includes a central referral entry point that families can access by phone and active outreach by staff to build family, community, and health care providers’ understanding of healthy child development and referral processes.  

This brief is part of Chapin Hall’s evaluation of innovations designed to promote screening for contributors to toxic stress during pediatric well-child visits and connect families to early childhood and community service providers. 

What We Did 

We partnered with the Help Me Grow National Center and three Help Me Grow County Affiliates in California (Alameda, Orange, and Santa Clara counties) to learn about the role central referral systems play in the lives of families with young children. Through interviews with Help Me Grow staff members and pediatricians, and focus groups held with parents and community-based organizations, the study team investigated how these different stakeholders use Help Me Grow, and how these supports impact children’s developmental journeys. 

What We Found 

Parents most commonly learned about Help Me Grow through their child’s healthcare provider. When providers connected parents to Help Me Grow, parents felt more empowered to seek services for children and other family members. While families reported frustration when they could not access services in a timely, efficient manner—a capacity issue in their communities—they told us that Help Me Grow staff prepared them to navigate the referral process and pursue their preferred service options. On the health and early care provider side, these practitioners reported struggling with not having enough information or expertise to navigate the community service sector. They reported that Help Me Grow’s care coordinators and up-to-date service directories helped increase family access to services.  

What It Means 

Families and providers emphasized the value of having a “onestop shop” for child development and other resources in their community. Help Me Grow and other central referral systems with a focus on young children help match families to the service options they want more quickly.Ensuring that central referral systems are set up to successfully provide value and support for families is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where provider availability and family needs are changing quickly.Findings from this study suggest that robust central referral systems offer a promising model for communities seeking to reduce contributors to toxic stress and promote family protective factors during this unprecedented time. 

Recommended Citation
Spain, A. K., Anderson, M., & McCrae, J. S. (2020). Getting connected: Referrals for family support in early childhood. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Referrals for family support in early childhood