08/02/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

A Simple, Powerful Service for Young Children: Home Visiting

Below is an open letter to Dr. Joxel García, recently named by Mayor Vincent Gray to lead the Department of Health.

Dr. García,

Welcome to the District. I'm sure you would like to make a strong start when you take your new post on August 1. One powerful way to show you are moving the Department of Health forward would be to clear up the delays which have prevented DOH from distributing federal grant funds for home visiting services and, by doing so, help more of D.C.'s young children get a strong start in their lives.

Home visiting is a simple idea with a big payoff: send a trained mentor to visit weekly with a new parent to provide education and support. It gives young children a solid foundation that improves every aspect of their lives. Children served by home visiting programs are more likely to start kindergarten ready to learn, more likely to experience good health, and more likely to have strong relationships with their parents. Without home visiting programs, many of these children would be at risk of abuse, neglect, and undiagnosed developmental delays.

Home visiting works because it focuses on children under age five, the time when the most critical brain growth is occurring. In the first years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second. When children grow up in supportive and stimulating environments, the fundamental architecture of their brains develops in ways that promote learning and health. Home visiting makes sure that parents have the tools to create these nurturing environments.

Although D.C. has more than 38,000 children under 5, the four existing programs that use tried-and-tested, evidence-based models of home visiting only have the capacity to serve about 600 families. Our home visiting programs have never been big enough to serve all of the children who could benefit from them because securing funding has been a challenge. With limited resources, home visiting has focused on the geographic areas with the most need -- Wards five, seven, and eight -- but even in those wards we are far from serving all the children we should.

Last year, the District applied for a competitive federal grant to expand the capacity of evidence-based home visiting models to reach more young children. The good news is, we won! D.C. was awarded $4.5 million over two years. The grant will give 400 more children the benefit of home visiting, and will help the city make structural improvements to the program so it can grow even more in the future. The bad news is that 10 months after D.C. was awarded the two-year grant, the D.C. government hasn't acted -- and if they don't act soon the money could be lost permanently.

The delay, we are told, is in the contracting and procurement process. The Department of Health delivers services through contracts with local non-profits. But the request for proposals, which starts the contracting process, has not yet been issued. Children's Law Center is part of D.C.'s Home Visiting Council, and we haven't been able to get a clear answer about when the requests for proposals will be issued.

Dr. García, now that you're taking the lead at the Department of Health, we hope that you will prioritize this home visiting work so that the funds your department worked so hard to win aren't lost. Thank you for your attention to this issue.

Judith Sandalow
Executive Director
Children's Law Center