When Miriam gave birth to her first child, at 18, she had to come to terms with the realities of parenting a child with complex medical needs. Fortunately, she and her baby were referred to an evidence-based, home-visiting program wherein a trained professional provided in-home coaching and support.
With difficulty affording necessities like nutritious food, and a husband whose military duties often kept him from home, Miriam describes the help she received from her home visitor as critical: “My home visitor helped me with every aspect of parenting, connecting me to a dietitian who could treat my daughter’s disorder, helping me access (Women Infant and Children) so that my baby and I could afford to eat, and helping me learn about my baby’s development.”
Last month, Congress reauthorized funding for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program for five years. This program funds services like those Miriam and her family received and represents a breakthrough for families like her’s. Amid an ever-crowded news cycle, it’s important to acknowledge this important victory for children and families.
Home visiting is a voluntary, home-based program that provides comprehensive services to families when they need it most: the critical early childhood years. A wealth of neuroscience research demonstrates that children’s early experiences — especially their interactions with parents and other adults — profoundly affect their brain development. Infants’ and toddlers’ brains form over 1 million new neural connections per second. These connections are strengthened every time an infant or young child gestures or cries and an adult responds appropriately with comforting words or a hug.
But when parents face economic instability, domestic violence or significant mental health challenges, they may struggle to provide the type of interactions young children need. Fortunately, programs like home visiting empower parents with the tools that support their children’s healthy development.
MIECHV prioritizes serving families that lack economic and social supports, like young parents, families in poverty, and families with a history of substance abuse.
Home visiting connects families with trained nurses and social workers who provide pre- and postnatal support; coaching on topics like pregnancy health and child development; counseling on education and job opportunities; and much more. Home visitors meet families where they are, answering parents’ questions and providing guidance without judgment in a familiar, comfortable setting.
Although the program is relatively small — MIECHV serves around 160,000 families — it is becoming a critical part of the social safety net for families.
Miriam had the good fortune to work with a trained child development professional who helped her access nutrition assistance programs, provided education on child development, and offered critical emotional support while her husband was serving in the military. Participating in home visiting gave Miriam the knowledge, skills and confidence she needed to be a good parent. Today, Miriam is a college graduate and a home visitor herself with Parents as Teachers.
Research shows these services really work. All program models eligible for MIECHV funding are evidence-based, meaning that they are backed by rigorous studies that demonstrate their effectiveness. Home visiting programs have positive, lifelong outcomes for families, including improved child and maternal health; reductions in child maltreatment; increased school readiness; and greater family economic self-sufficiency. According to the Center for American Progress, every $1 invested in home visiting yields a $3 to $5 return to society.
Although home visiting has enjoyed broad bipartisan support across all levels of government, it reaches only a small share of families who stand to benefit. In 2016, home visiting allowed states to serve only around 4 percent of families in poverty. Fortunately, MIECHV’s five-year reauthorization gives states the funding stability needed to beef up their programs and consider ways to improve and expand services. By ensuring stable funding for five years, the federal government leaves the door open for states to step up and invest in these services, too. This is exactly what states must do to ensure children have a strong start.
Amid a news cycle that changes by the minute, let’s pause to recognize the importance of this program’s reauthorization for families. Home visiting programs are proven and cost-effective services that help parents and children. MIECHV’s reauthorization represents a commitment to serving families like Miriam’s: Let’s not let them down.