A program to intercept problems with Prince William County's youngest students before they evolve into serious difficulties has been expanded this year to 10 elementary schools.

The program, called Comprehensive Child Study, brings together parents, the school system, the courts and county social agencies. It is used only in the cases of intractable problems such as chronic absenteeism, tardiness or misbehavior, coupled with unresponsive or overwhelmed parents.

The philosophy is that such problems need to be addressed with the student's family, said Heatherly Conway, program coordinator. She plans to present an update on the program to the School Board tonight.

"We make it clear to the family that our first job is to help them," Conway said. Helping families helps the young student, who is then able to focus in school--or, as Conway calls it, "available to learn."

"For the most part, we have really had amazing success," she said.

The program began last school year at Nokesville, Sinclair and West Gate elementary schools. It has been added at Penn, Coles, Pattie, River Oaks, Bel Air, Enterprise and Neabsco elementary schools.

Conway, a passionate advocate of early intervention programs, first brought several agencies to bear on a particular case she was dealing with. "I tried to get together a team effort with one family," Conway said.

She then approached the agency heads to ask them to create Comprehensive Child Study for the three schools where she was based as a social worker. "I told them: 'We need to do this. It works for children.' "

Bringing multiple agencies together to deal with a family's problems seems obvious, and the social service agencies, schools and courts have had informal and occasional conversations about particular cases, Conway said. Comprehensive Child Study makes the process formal and assures that every agency knows what the other is doing, without duplicating efforts.

Bringing nearly a dozen people around a table to talk to one family also has the effect of emphasising to parents just how serious the problems are.

"Sometimes, the school system approaches the family and the parents don't take it seriously, so they write it off," said Paul Borzellino, of the county Community Services Board.

Jane McMorrow, a probation supervisor with the county juvenile and domestic court, said jokingly that she's the "heavy" on the child study team.

"It's a role I'm very familiar with," McMorrow said. "But my whole goal is to keep them out of the juvenile system."

She continued: "My heart breaks for some of these young parents because they're very, very overwhelmed. It's sometimes easy to just ignore behavior than to deal with it."

One of the "stars" of the program, according to Conway, is a mother of four, who asked that her name not be used. Her children began having problems in school after she left her abusive husband and moved into a group home.

Her oldest daughter, then 10, began staging a mini-rebellion each morning, refusing to go to school. Her younger children followed along, and soon the mother was getting her children to school late every day, at the same time she was trying to rebuild her own life.

She calls the Comprehensive Child Study process difficult but necessary.

"I knew they were trying to help me, and I knew I needed the help," she said. "But it's a very overwhelming process to be sitting in a room with 10 people who you've never seen before and have them tell you you're a good mother, but. . . ."

Through Comprehensive Child Study and in-home therapy ordered by the courts, this mother said her children are now excited about school and she's hopeful for the future.

"I have been introduced to resources I never knew about and I never would have found out about. Left to my own devices, my kids could be in foster care, and I would be fighting to get them back."

Conway hopes to see the program eventually expanded beyond the 10 elementary schools.

"It's so very, very critical," Conway said. "The only way to make a difference in what's happening now with teens is through an early intervention collaboration of agencies and schools."