Barriers to Navigating Early Childhood

Guest blog by Sarah Wilson and Jenn Harrod, Health Net of West Michigan

Being a parent or caregiver is no easy task. This is especially true for expectant parents, seasoned parents, and caregivers of young children as they work to advocate for the needs of their household and for their children. Families strive to provide an environment where their children have every opportunity to grow and succeed, but there can be multiple barriers that can make this goal challenging. Everything from inequitable access to housing, education, mental health care, and transportation contribute to these challenges.

In the early years of life, there are many appointments with healthcare providers to ensure a child is healthy, growing, and developing along with their peers. The primary focus of these appointments is on the child’s physical and behavioral health. Meeting regularly with a physician/primary care provider can help reveal when connecting with additional early childhood resources or specialty care, like behavioral health services, could be beneficial.

Kent County is a resource-rich community, but this advantage doesn’t come without its challenges. There are many early childhood programs and services available, but the process of seeking those resources can be very overwhelming. For parents, it can be hard to know what exists in our community, if your child meets the eligibility criteria, how to enroll in the services, and if the resources are the right fit for your family. This is where community organizations like Health Net of West Michigan come into the picture.

Health Net of West Michigan is a local nonprofit, dedicated to collaborating with health insurance providers, health systems, community agencies, and our neighbors to help individuals and families navigate the social services systems. Our team of social workers and community health workers takes a specialized approach to provide navigation services to our community members. We focus on the strengths of each client and support them through the process of reaching their goals in the ways that work best for their family, focusing on equipping families with the tools they need to feel empowered in their journey toward seeking resources.

“Parenting young children is an enormous blessing but can also be difficult when you are faced with external factors that threaten the health and wellbeing of families, such as unsafe housing, food scarcity, or developmental concerns,” said Jenn Harrod, Client Services Manager. “As a parent myself who navigated this system, I was extremely overwhelmed at the sheer number of resources available, and how to proceed with getting support. Health Net seeks to eliminate that guesswork, and steps in as an advocate to help connect our clients to these resources, so that they can focus on the joy of being a parent and watching their children grow!”

Collaboration is key to success in assisting families to find the resources that best fit their family’s needs. Prenatally, Health Net partners with OB/GYN residency practices and Spectrum Health Healthier Communities childbirth education classes to ensure expectant parents are supported from pregnancy and beyond. We have built partnerships with the major healthcare systems including Spectrum Health, Trinity Health, and the University of Michigan Health-West to provide screening after labor and delivery, with services occurring either telephonically or at the patient’s bedside. In the early years, Health Net’s partnered with Kent County Health Department WIC, Family Promise, and Helen Devos Children’s Hospital Emergency Department to ensure families have access to community resources that focus solely on childhood health and well-being.

Health Net also has a unique and intensive service focused on foster children and their families, named Fostering Connections. In this approach, foster children, their family of origin, and foster parents have access to a case manager to help assist in eliminating barriers and provide direct access to early childhood resources. With this support, the goal of reunification and positive placement is strengthened by eliminating barriers that brought children into the child welfare system, such as unsafe housing or the need for parental support.

Health Net utilizes an early childhood and social needs screening tool at each partner agency. The screening tool asks questions about health-related social needs like housing, utilities, transportation, employment, food access, interpersonal safety, early childhood needs, and more. All these factors can have a direct impact on the families’ ability to build an environment for successful growth and development of their children and takes a holistic look at the family’s situation beyond their child’s physical health.

Thanks to support from the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage and the partnerships with foster care agencies, labor and delivery departments, pediatric emergency departments, and the ability for clients to self-refer to our services, we were able to impact the lives of 2,531 individuals with children under six years old with resource navigation assistance in 2021.

  • We received more than 142 referrals per month in 2021, with 286 referrals received during our busiest month.
  • 4% of the referred families came from a community partner and 41.6% were individuals who called Health Net directly for assistance.
  • The top resource needs and connections we assisted families to include:
    • General early childhood services
    • Shelter and housing
    • Assistance with utilities
    • Behavioral health
    • Food
    • Dental
    • Transportation
    • Environmental resources (removing mold, lead pipes and paint concerns, water leaks, and the like)
    • Education
  • The families who utilized our early childhood services held a variety of health coverage types:
    • 8% had Medicaid
    • 6% had commercial insurance
    • 5% were uninsured
    • .1% had Medicare.

What can I do?

Individuals living in Kent County can help support resource navigation services by voting to renew the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage. Your voice in local elections shows a commitment to the future generations of leaders in our community. You can also support the parents in your life by reaching out to offer support as they work to navigate parenthood.

Health Net of West Michigan services are open to anyone living in Kent County. For more information about Health Net of West Michigan, visit or call 616-726-8204.