MDSC pushed forward, determined to make it work. Today, the MDSC has trained parents nationwide for local Parents First Call Programs with an emphasis on support and information, not pressure or dramatization. It's not about talking a parent into keeping a child with Down syndrome — it's about making sure that parent has accurate information about what having a child with Down syndrome really means.
Within Massachusetts, MDSC has more than 50 trained parents prepared to respond to a new parent’s request for support. From 2010 to 2013, the organization has tripled its connections with parents who received a prenatal diagnosis.
“So much of the success of our program has come from building credibility and trust with medical professionals, who then refer families to us,” says Sarah Cullen, family support director for MDSC.
She explains the trained parents, “are here to listen, support and provide accurate, up-to-date, balanced resources for families.”
Cullen says MDSC is committed to connecting with families within 24 hours of a referral, and in the case of prenatal families, often within an hour or two.
MDSC’s Parents First Call Program offers support to parents in two ways.
“It is important to meet parents where they are,” Cullen explains. “Some may want lots of written information, some may want to speak with a few other parents, some may even want to meet a child with Down syndrome, others may want information mailed to their home, but are not ready to connect with another parent. We provide multiple options based on the needs of each family.”
For the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte (DSAGC) in North Carolina, meeting Cullen and learning about the Parents First Call Program was a major step toward increasing the organization’s outreach to the medical community and providing sensitive, unbiased support for families throughout North Carolina.
Like MDSC’s mission, DSAGC focuses on the importance of meeting parents where they are emotionally. “If they’re not ready to connect, we won’t force that,” says Terri Leyton, program director for DSAGC. “If they are ready and want a lot of information, we’ll give them that, as well.”
Developed with input from the medical community and parents, MDSC’s Parents First Call Program training focuses on the following:
Alice (not her real name) and her husband received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome for their baby and were among the first families to access newly established DSAGC’s Parents First Call Program.
The connection came through their genetic counselor, who quickly reached out to DSAGC when Alice and her husband acknowledged, “we were too overwhelmed to do so ourselves, but we knew on some level how valuable this could be,” Alice shares.
“We were in a lot of shock and very overwhelmed,” Alice remembers. She says after they shared their daughter’s diagnosis with family and loved ones, they received an outpouring of support and prayers, but at the time of the diagnosis, “we didn’t have anyone who could relate to what we were going through, which is/was a lot.”
The family was matched with another mother who had recently given birth to a beautiful boy with Down syndrome. “She was open and honest with her heart and provided such a great sounding board, having previously gone through… what we were going through. It was the first time we could talk to someone that ‘could relate,’ and we didn’t have to sensor anything with her, because she had been where we were and just understood.”
“No matter how private of a person you are,” Alice says, “at some point, you will benefit from talking to someone that has been in your shoes, and the [Parents] First Call Program is a great resource if you don’t have someone in your personal life that has been where you are to reach out to.”
Families can receive a variety of updated, unbiased resources both online and by reaching out to an organization by phone.
“We will connect and send our welcome package to anyone who calls!” says MDSC’s Cullen. “In fact, we just sent a package to a family in Romania where there was no local Down syndrome organization [or] connections.”
Stephanie Meredith authored the Lettercase pamphlet, endorsed by Down syndrome organizations and the medical community as the gold standard of unbiased, updated information. She says any information shared with expectant or new parents, “should be reviewed by medical experts to make sure it’s accurate and balanced to meet their standards for sharing with their patients.”
Meredith points out that information is essentially useless if the medical community considers it biased and thus unreliable.
Campbell K. Brasington, MS, CGC, and pediatric genetic counselor at Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers the following advice for locating materials that will provide up-to-date information about Down syndrome in general and specifically the spectrum of abilities and opportunities people with Down syndrome continue to have.
Brasington warns against these red flags:
Meredith explains further. “When we train local Down syndrome organizations to do medical outreach, we advise them to avoid the following — cultural insensitivity, emotional pleas, political discussions, judgmental comments, stereotypes about Down syndrome, physicians, or hospitals, misinformation and long personal stories.
“Materials that have not been reviewed by experts or that seem lopsided in the way they present information also lose credibility with medical providers and their patients.”
Genetic counselors can also be a source of information and support. “The genetic counselor is there to help parents find whatever information or resources they need to answer that particular family's questions,” explains Brasington.
“Whether it is after a prenatal diagnosis or after the birth of a baby with Ds, genetic counselors are especially trained to listen to families' concerns and offer nonjudgmental support and guidance. They are familiar with local and national resources and can put families in touch with local support groups and early intervention programs.”
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