Anyone who’s had the responsibility of caring for a newborn or young child can agree on one thing: It’s hard!
While family circumstances vary drastically across the state, the fact that parenting babies and toddlers is one of the most challenging periods in a person’s life is universal.
But a growing body of research shows that the earliest years are the most important window of time to nurture healthy brain development, and that positive relationships are one of the best ways to ensure that happens.
In California, 62 percent of babies are born into low-income families, and one in six have a mother who did not graduate from high school.
Where do families like these go when they need help or information? What do these parents do when they don’t have the support or the resources they need?
Consider the story of Saray, now 27. In early childhood, she experienced emotional neglect and physical abuse.
When she was 6, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her grandmother and was finally able to escape the abuse. However, as a teenager, she struggled with unhealed trauma and lacked the support to address it.
She became addicted to drugs, dropped out of high school and eventually ended up living on Los Angeles’ skid row.
In 2016, Saray was single and still living in Los Angeles when she gave birth to her son. A few months later, she began working with the Healthy Families America program through Shields for Families, funded by First 5 LA.
The program connected her to a home visitor who became her supporter and champion. Saray said her home visitor, “helped me through difficult times. Especially when my family did not trust and believe in me, my home visitor did. She listened to my needs, talked me through tough times, and always helped me see the positive side of things.”
Home-visiting programs, like the one Saray participates in, match new and expectant parents with trained professionals who provide ongoing, individualized support during critical points in pregnancy and through a child’s first few years.
As Saray’s son grew and new challenges emerged, Saray said her home visitor “supported me when my son’s behavior was difficult and I felt like I wanted to give up. Learning about my child’s behavior, and doing the activities, helped me work with my son to calm him down, giving him the attention he needed.”
Home visitors are social workers, registered nurses or parent educators formally trained in a particular home-visiting program model. Home visitors work with families on a regular basis, often beginning during pregnancy or shortly after the birth of a child, and continuing for the next several years.
Visits typically last an hour, and range in frequency from weekly to monthly depending on the program guidelines. Programs are free to participants, who set personal goals, control the pace of the visits and focus the meetings on their own interests and questions. Home visitors offer parenting advice, coach parents toward their goals, and assist families in securing needed health screenings and safety-net resources.
These voluntary, evidence-based programs have been proven to be effective, and are backed by decades of research. In fact, evidence-based home visiting is proven to boost positive outcomes for both parents and children by supporting the optimal development of children; preventing child abuse and neglect; promoting healthy family relationships; increasing the confidence and competence of parents; promoting family economic self-sufficiency; and maximizing utilization of safety-net supports.
Although California does not yet invest directly in home-visiting programs—as more than 30 other states do—statewide leaders have championed and invested in these programs. Still, fewer than 2 percent of families who might benefit from home visits have access to them in California.
Home-visiting programs have rightfully begun to garner the attention of policymakers in Sacramento.
Last year, Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, who is also a Fresno physician, authored Assembly Bill 992, which would bring home visiting to families participating in the state’s California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program. The bill is still under consideration in the legislature.
And in January, Governor Brown proposed a $158.5 million multi-year set-aside of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding within his 2018-19 budget to fund home visiting for young, first-time parents in CalWORKs through 2021.
Saray knows the value of home-visiting programs. Her son recently turned one, and last July she married his father.
Today, this new family is looking ahead at a brighter future. Let’s help make California’s future brighter too, so that more families like Saray’s have access to the individualized support they need—from the very start.
Angela Rothermel is a senior associate of early childhood policy at Children Now.