In the past decade, New Jersey has made tremendous progress in expanding universal, full-year kindergarten programs for children ages four and five. These programs build on the growing body of research demonstrating that education needs to start early to enhance school achievement, and that preschool programs provide a structured learning environment that helps both families and children during these crucial early years.
The research also shows that the most rapid brain development for children happens in the first three years, before kindergarten begins. Some children are fortunate to be able to attend high-quality preschools during these critical 0-3 years but for many others, parents are their children’s only teachers until public school begins.
But we know that raising children, under the best of circumstances, can be stressful for everyone. Many parents, despite wanting the best for their children, may lack knowledge about basic parenting practices; others face overwhelming stress from financial, family health and other challenges.
New Jersey is fortunate to have a home visiting program that helps parents get off to the best possible start with their newborn child; it helps them get access to early prenatal care, to receive early screenings for any health problems and to receive guidance about positive parenting and healthy child development.
This federal program is known as the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visitation program (MIECHV). It serves nearly 7,000 families in some of New Jersey’s most challenging neighborhoods. Congress must reauthorize this program before Sept. 30, 2017, otherwise these valuable services could end.
The home visiting programs funded by MIECHV enjoy decades of rigorous research documenting their effectiveness. They improve a broad array of child health and development outcomes and reduce the risks for child abuse. Studies also show they yield a “return on investment” to taxpayers by reducing future costs for health and social services.
Why are they so effective? These programs are voluntary; parents choose to enroll after being educated about the program, often during a prenatal care visit. Families are enrolled for up to three years; the duration over a longer period of time allows a much stronger “dose” to improve outcomes. Home visitors are highly trained and often live in the same community as the family; they understand the neighborhood, services and specific challenges each family may be facing. Together, these elements create a powerful level of trust that accounts for the programs’ remarkable results.
According to the 2017 New Jersey Kids Count Report, New Jersey’s statistics on children are improving in a number of important areas: reductions in the rate of low birthweight children, increases in breast-feeding and immunization rates, drops in the number of children in the child welfare system and teen birthrates. Additionally, the percentage of uninsured children in New Jersey may be at the lowest level ever.
Many factors contribute to this progress, but what cannot be ignored is that the MIECHV home visiting programs specifically focus on each of these issues for all of the 7,000 families enrolled. Home visitors ensure that nearly all families in these programs receive primary healthcare, including childhood immunizations and breast-feeding education and consultations
Important to note, MIECHV enjoys broad bi-partisan support. Key members of the House Ways and Means Committee, including Chairman Brady (R-TX) and Smith (R-NE) have issued public statements in support of the program. Representative Smith even accompanied a recent home visit in his home state of Nebraska to see the program in action. Here in New Jersey, Congressman Pallone has also gone on a home visit. Congressman Pascrell is working with advocates to support the reauthorization of MIECHV in the House and Senator Menendez is leading the effort in the Senate, with his Republican colleague, Senator Grassley from Iowa.
We are making progress to build a brighter future for our children in New Jersey. Home vising programs are among our best investments known to help thousands of parents get off to the best possible start with their newborn child. It’s not time to suddenly remove these supports, but rather time to urge our elected officials to get MIECHV reauthorized so the families participating in these programs, and many more like them, can thrive. We can all recognize that many parents can benefit from a little help in the sometimes challenging job that is parenting.
Rush Russell is the Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey