THE BLOG

Opening Up Avenues of Success for New Parents

02/25/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
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Jonathan, a new single dad, knew nothing about how to take care of an infant -- especially one addicted to methadone and with marijuana in her system. His daughter was moody, had the jerks and would lose her breath frequently. When he received a call from a local voluntary home visiting program asking if he wanted to join, he jumped at the chance. A trained support worker came to Jonathan's home regularly to check in, answer questions, provide books and toys, help him organize doctor's appointments and provide guidance on key milestones his baby should reach at various ages. With this help, Jonathan gained the confidence and knowledge necessary to get his daughter off to a good start.

Home visiting programs are lifelines for Jonathan and thousands of other families all across America. But to benefit from these services, they need Congress to act -- and act soon. At the end of March, Congress will vote on whether or not to reauthorize funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV). If Congress fails to reauthorize funding, obstacles ranging from stress to social isolation to poverty will continue to affect how parents are able to interact with and care for their baby -- often with dire consequences. Voluntary local home visiting programs give parents critical tools designed to support their baby's development -- and their own physical and mental health -- during the critical early years.

Voluntary home visiting programs reach families where they live and tailor services to meet each family's individual needs. Although home visiting programs vary in goals and content of services, in general, they combine parenting and health care education, child abuse prevention and early intervention and education services for young children and their families. Research shows that home visiting programs work, ultimately improving health and saving money for taxpayers, with tangible results like better birth outcomes, improved child health outcomes, better educational attainment for moms, improved school readiness, reduced child abuse and neglect and more economically self-sufficient families.

Home visiting programs have existed for decades, funded through a variety of public and private sources. In 2010, however, Congress established MIECHV to fund and support voluntary, evidence-based, home visiting services. or more than five years, MIECHV has invested $1.5 billion to establish state-based home visiting programs. To date, more than 1.4 million home visits have been conducted in nearly 800 at-risk communities across the country, still only about two-thirds of counties and communities with the highest rates of certain socio-economic indicators, including infant mortality, poor birth outcomes, child maltreatment, need for domestic violence services and living in poverty.

To receive funds, grantees must commit to demonstrating improvement across several benchmark areas, not just for children and families, but for how they do business for those families through coordination and referrals to other services. Why is coordination and referral so important? Many of the families served by the MIECHV program, like Jonathan and his daughter, have complex needs. Some have unmet health or mental health needs; others struggle for the basics of food and shelter; still others may be living in violent environments. Navigating through myriad programs is challenging. When supports are coordinated as part of an integrated early childhood system, duplication of services is minimized, and the right services are connected to families who need them, strengthening the life trajectory for many young children.

This collaborative, coordinated approach is working. Consider an effort in Michigan, where eight pilot communities are creating local systems for centralized access to an array of services for families with complex needs. With leadership from the Michigan Department of Community Health and MIECHV program funding, these communities are collaborating on local hubs that better connect families to appropriate services and forge close ties among the partnering agencies. The state administrators provided guidance, but the communities developed their own models, based on their specific community resources and needs, creating buy-in and trust that will ensure this collaborative approach will continue. The state administrators connect the pilot communities so they can learn from one another and share practices.

Congress now has the opportunity to extend -- and ideally expand upon -- its investment in this valuable program. We urge Congress to reauthorize MIECHV so thousands of parents like Jonathan will continue to get the support and services they need to succeed.