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Profile: An Advocate for Children at Home and at Work

Striving to secure good healthcare, education, and other services for her own children has helped Nicole Pratt in her work with other families

Nicole Pratt
Nicole Pratt

Who she is: Nicole Pratt is a senior trainer with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), a nonprofit that assists families in a variety of ways.

Where she lives: Trenton

Deep connection: Pratt’s life is about child advocacy. As a single mother in New Jersey, she has worked diligently for nearly two decades to secure proper healthcare, education and other opportunities for her two special-needs children, who both also have had mental health issues. In her work with SPAN, she helps other parents to do the same.

Awareness Day: Pratt’s deep experience with this work — on both personal and professional levels — led to her participation in the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, an annual event held on May 4 this year. First marked in 2005, the Awareness Day now includes panel discussions, local public events, and a social media campaign to underscore the importance of emotional health among youth.

Pratt shared her perspective last week during a live national webcast broadcast from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., one of several interactive panels that focused on the importance of integrating behavioral healthcare with primary care services, the theme for this year’s Awareness Day. Pratt joined a trio of child and adolescent mental health experts from the D.C. area to discuss the challenges around providing comprehensive care and took questions from the audience and viewers online.

Advice to other parents: Gather information, secure personal support, and don’t forget to take care of yourself — mentally and physically. “As parents, we can really lose our identity,” Pratt said after the event. “I know it’s hard, but you have to take moments, even if it’s a moment to cry, or call someone who is close to you and vent,” she continued. “I go get my nails done, or get myself something nice. And I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.”

Both of Pratt’s children were born early and she split from her abusive husband when they were young. Her daughter, now 22, has chronic asthma, learning disabilities, and suffered a mental health crisis as a teenager. Her 16-year-old son is also dealing with asthma and learning disabilities, as well as cerebral palsy and, more recently, depression.

Significant advantage: Her daughter’s first encounter with mental illness came when Pratt was working for a healthcare system in Essex County, which she said gave her a significant advantage. “I had the knowledge and the information on my side to get the help she needed,” Pratt recalled, “and to keep her from being hospitalized.”

Instead of inpatient care, Pratt arranged for home-based behavioral healthcare for her daughter. When her son needed extra help, she worked with education officials to coordinate services at school. And when the system in Jersey City failed to meet the family’s needs, Pratt packed them up and moved to Trenton “for the benefit of both my children.” Eventually she went back to school herself, securing masters degrees in education and psychology, so she could better understand their needs and care.

While the process is often difficult and frustrating, Pratt said the Garden State provides a fairly comprehensive system of care. “New Jersey actually has very robust medical coverage, especially for children with disabilities or mental health concerns,” she said. Both of her kids have Medicaid coverage that allowed them to see specialists in Philadelphia, she added, and schools have made good use of the state and federally funded insurance program.

“New Jersey has a lot to offer parents,” Pratt said. “And I access every service possible!”

Credits her colleagues: Today her children are doing well, Pratt said. Her daughter attends Mercer County College, tutors children with disabilities, and no longer needs medication to manage her mental illness. Her son is getting good marks in high school, works with the local Boys and Girls Club, and has his health issues largely under control. Both are involved with Special Olympics programs.

“For many years I was not really taking care of myself per se, always making sure my children were taken care of,” she recalled. “Now I’m more focused on self-care. I do a lot of self reflection.”

Pratt credits her colleagues at SPAN for helping her recover her balance and strength, which eventually allowed her to do even more to help others. As a senior trainer, she leads sessions for parents, school officials and other professionals on issues like special education rights, bullying and accessing behavioral healthcare.

Through other projects Pratt educates parents about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome and teaches child welfare workers how to better serve youngsters with disabilities or mental health challenges who are being held in detention centers. She also serves as a parent representative on several national advisory committees called to address health challenges like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

“We try to reach a whole slew of people who work in different systems,” Pratt said.

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