We now know that over the past two years, children and families in Flint, MI have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their water. We know too that this lead exposure has likely caused irreparable damage to children and that the problem itself - lead leaching pipes that carry water into the homes of Flint families - will not be easily fixed.
So what next for the children of Flint, MI?
I spent a week in Flint, MI in February and was amazed at the can-do attitude and resolve of the people of this struggling city. I arrived as part of a team from Children's Health Fund, and we had been asked to consider getting involved in the Flint Emergency Response by Federal and State Officials due to our history of responding effectively in similar crisis situations. We deployed to Flint quickly, bringing with us resources, skills and tools that included a mobile medical clinic for use in serving those children most in need. What we found was not a city desperate for a quick fix, but a collective sense of resolve to do the right thing for children and families over the long haul. This community could not have met a more receptive partner than Children's Health Fund.
We spent a week listening and learning about the situation and what was being done. One of the main takeaways is that while the water bottles, filters, other temporary band aids are welcome, what Children's Health Fund can do, and will do, is to focus on supporting three critical areas where addressing short term immediate needs strategically becomes foundational to long term solutions.
Priority #1: Lead testing for children
With lead poisoning linked to various mental and physical health issues, especially in children under age five, worried parents are demanding immediate screenings for these potentially devastating conditions.
Response: Children's Health Fund is working closely with local providers to ensure that lead screenings of all pediatric patients who might climb aboard the mobile clinic are done within a larger "wrap around" effort to make sure children are connected to a medical home for continuity of care. The lead test itself is a simple blood test, completed with a finger prick or by drawing blood from a vein. This immediate response is expected to last three months, guided by community-level demand. What is critical is that the lead testing campaign be used to bring children and families into longer term care and not be disruptive to their regular health care access.
Priority #2: Mental health support
Mental health support is the most acute need for the children of Flint and their families. The community needs reassurance, empathy and trauma-informed care to begin to heal from the traumatic events of the past couple years. The toxic stress that the children of Flint and their families have been exposed to requires immediate and long-term support.
Response: Children's Health Fund is working with partners to develop and implement an effective mobile mental health program in coordination with providers from the Genesee Health System. Direct services provided by Children's Health Fund could include technical assistance in program design and quality assurance with program staff being employed, licensed, managed, and supervised locally. In addition, a mobile unit that has been used in both the Katrina and Sandy Hurricane responses designed specifically to provide mental health services is available for immediate deployment to Flint to provide an additional asset for use in the response.
Children's Health Fund will be deploying pediatric trauma and resiliency experts who directed our mental health focused crisis responses since 9/11. This immediate response is expected to last 12 months, guided by community-level assessments.
Priority #3: Getting kids into an accelerated primary care regimen for the long term
Long after the immediate crisis is over, children exposed to lead can suffer negative intellectual or behavioral consequences. Providing access to comprehensive health care is essential to optimizing the health and wellbeing of Flint's at-risk children.
Response: Children's Health Fund supports minimizing the effects of exposure, and maximizing the long term needs of children in Flint by identifying, managing and treating any other health barriers to learning that they may have. The Children's Health Fund model is to create a long term, supportive mobile program to further reduce access barriers and facilitate the integration of vulnerable school-age children into a comprehensive medical home model of care. Working at community sites like schools and Head Start programs, the mobile program would conduct screenings for other chronic conditions that have been proven to undermine academic success and wellbeing--such as vision and hearing deficits, uncontrolled asthma, and behavior problems. Under the direction of local partners, the mobile program can become a vital part of the current system of care, enhancing--not disrupting--the local capacity. Again, direct services would be provided through local partners and program staff will be employed, licensed, managed, and supervised locally.
While the Flint crisis only recently made national headlines, the emergency levels of lead exposure have been present in children for more than 18 months. In examining the way forward, Children's Health Fund has chosen to focus on an asset based approach that builds on the knowledge, skills and determination of the people on the ground. Together, we can and will make both a short and long term difference in the lives of children and families in Flint - but it will take a village. Please join us to make a world of difference for kids in Flint (www.childrenshealthfund.org).