Navigator links Washington County families, services

January 15, 2008|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN - Nicole Ritchey is like any proud mother, quick to show off a photo of her three children and talk about their accomplishments.

Those accomplishments have been hard-earned, though, since her oldest son has autism and her younger son has obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD and anxiety problems.

Through her own experience, Ritchey brings invaluable skills and empathy to her position as a family navigator at The Family Network. The Family Network, a two-year pilot program, opened its office at 33 W. Washington St. in January 2007.

In its first year, the program served nearly 200 families, double its goal.

Ritchey is one of four part-time family navigators - three in the Washington County office and one in Allegany County. Debbie Green is the regional director of the program.


All five women have children with different special needs, and several are single parents.

It was the passage of House Bill 1386, with a comprehensive plan produced and adopted by Gov. Robert Ehrlich in June 2004, that provided the impetus.

"It charged a local management board to design a single-point access system," Green said.

That means that people who receive services through different agencies can look to The Family Network as a constant, a resource to help them work with all these services.

The program is funded through the Governor's Office for Children in partnership with Washington County Community Partnership for Children & Families and The Local Management Board of Allegany County Inc.

Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health is a statewide agency that provides family navigation and support services across the state, and the Washington/Allegany County offices chose the name The Family Network.

The goal was to fill in some of the gaps in the system that were determined through a comprehensive needs assessment of the two counties, Ritchey said.

"A lot of times, it's exhausting for families to find services when they're consumed with the day-to-day care of a child," Ritchey said.

Ritchey is quick to point out that The Family Network isn't just for families with mental health and disability issues; it serves all education and income levels. She said she also has helped families who are new to the area find resources in the community.

There is no such thing as a typical day for Ritchey. One day, she might be in court with a family; another day, she might be helping someone in need of a winter coat or working with an individual who is contemplating suicide. Some issues are easy to find answers for, while others "require a lot of hand holding."

It takes a sense of humor to be a parent, especially one with special-needs children.

"We work for our sanity," Ritchey said.

She also finds diversion in continuing her education. Ritchey, who is a certified paralegal, has two classes to complete at Hagerstown Community College before transferring to University System of Maryland.

She gets emotional, though, as she thinks of the strong friendships she has developed with her co-workers. Through the commonality of parenting special-needs children, they understand what each other has been through.

"This isn't something any of us signed up for," Ritchey said. "We have no idea what's around the bend. I have found this new family. These girls are my family."

When it comes to issues with their own children, Ritchey and the other family navigators depend on each other to help them navigate the system. Ritchey said when advocating for her own children, emotions take over, which is why she depends on support.

"It's a lonely place to be. Finding kindred spirits is a treasure," Ritchey said.

In addition to the services provided by family navigators, The Family Network offers monthly workshops and participates in a Family Leadership Institute. The network is seeking people to go on a bus trip to Annapolis on Feb. 5 for Mental Health Day. For details, call 240-313-2086.

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