In order for children to get the best start in life, families need strong communities where everyone is working together toward common goals for young children. The All Our Kids Early Childhood Networks initiative (AOK Networks) was launched in 1999 to support collaboration across service sectors so that greater results for young children could be achieved.
The AOK Networks initiative is a collaborative effort of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Family and Community Services; the Illinois State Board of Education; health departments and other lead agencies; and local stakeholders who care about the health and well-being of very young children and their parents/caregivers. It is the most comprehensive, long-standing, community-based systems development initiative in the State of Illinois.
AOK Networks are community-based collaborations that promote healthy pregnancies and the positive growth and development of all children birth to five and their parents/caregivers by assuring a well-coordinated, easily-accessible, equitable and just system of services and supports that engages parents as partners in making the system work for them.
To carry out their mission, AOK Networks (1) strengthen their capacity as a Network, (2) enhance coordination of cross-sector service delivery, and (3) improve the system of services and supports so it works for families. Through AOK Networks across the state, service providers, parents, and community members are working together to create the future they want for their children.
System of Services and Supports
For example, all children, regardless of their family’s income or prevalence of risk factors, benefit from high-quality services such as prenatal and well-child care, immunizations, screenings, information on child development, parenting education, and child safety to assure their healthy development.
Some children, who have one or more risk factors, are at increased risk of health, developmental, and/or social-emotional-mental problems. These risk factors may be offset when children and/or their parents/caregivers engage in services such as home visiting, family case management, coordinated care, family literacy, job placement assistance, etc.
A few children who are most at-risk – those with a greater number or more severe risk factors or medical problems – may require additional specialized services for themselves or their parents, for example, therapeutic or remedial services, child welfare services, and respite care or substance abuse treatment for parents/caregivers.
Together, AOK Network partners work to build a more coherent system of services and supports that can better meet the needs of all very young children and their parents/caregivers in their communities.
All Our Kids Early Childhood Networks are unique in that they are concerned about the health and well-being of all children birth to five years of age, their parents/caregivers, and expecting women. This means that AOK Networks involve stakeholders who represent a holistic and comprehensive set of services and supports focused on health, mental health, early learning and care, social services, parent supports, basic needs and more. Services are comprehensive in that they meet a wide range of needs from promotion and prevention to intervention.
Assessment and Planning
Many AOK Networks collaborate with the Illinois Project for Local Assessment of Needs (IPLAN), Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP), or other local comprehensive planning efforts. AOK Networks bring a specific focus, passion, and data about the needs of expecting parents and children birth to five and their parents/caregivers.
A unique aspect of AOK Networks assessment and strategic planning process is the integration of Appreciative Inquiry as a compliment to more traditional needs or problem-based approaches. This integration allows Network partners to identify needs as well as the strengths and resources that already exist in the community. As a result, AOK Networks develop strategic initiatives that result both from the identification of child and family issues as well as building on what is already working for families with young children.
For example, the Rock Island County AOK Network identified the need to improve their process for sharing information and making client referrals during their needs assessment. At the same time, an enhanced information and referral system was also identified as a project of interest during an Appreciative Inquiry in a Day Summit. Within the year, the Adams County AOK Network began piloting the GP3S Database System with the Department of Human Services.
AOK Networks engage in a continuous improvement process that includes assessment, strategic planning, evaluation, and adaptive action. Every five years, AOK Networks engage in an assessment process to examine the health, development, and welfare of children birth to five and their parents/caregivers using indicators of heath care utilization, health status, child development, child welfare, social-emotional well-being, socio-economic status, and environmental health. Then they use this information to develop dynamic and responsive strategic plans.
Based on the findings from their needs and strengths assessments, AOK Networks develop strategic initiatives in three areas.
Network Capacity: Networks identify and develop at least one initiative to enhance their ability to work together. The initiative may focus on expanding their collaborative skills, deepening their system building know how, and/or strengthening the local infrastructure of their collaboration. By building their Network Capacity they become more effective, efficient, and resilient to changing conditions as they pursue their goals. Network capacity initiatives are often focused on one or more of the network capacity core areas.
System-Building Strategies: Networks can also work specifically on one or more system building strategies for enhancing the system of services and supports. These include, but are not limited to: Early Identification, Public Information and Education, Information and Referral, Coordination of Care, Service Needs and Utilization, Workforce Staffing and Development, and Local and State Policy.
Local Child and Family Issues/Priorities: Networks can also identify and develop initiatives focused on any local priority related to the health and well-being of expecting parents or children birth to five and their parents/caregivers. Networks are expected to address child and family priority issues using one or more of the system building strategies. Often they also focus on one or more Network capacity building core areas in order to address the issue. In this way, they address the issue as they also work to enhance the system and deepen their collaborative capacity.
While AOK Networks are required to develop five-year strategic plans, AOK Network members continually adapt their plans so that they can be responsive to changing conditions and emergent opportunities. In this way, AOK Network plans are more “living” than static, reflecting their commitment to continuous learning and adaptive action.