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Obama Looks to Expand Home Visiting Program for At-risk Families

  • Aru Pande

From expanding child care to making preschool more accessible, U.S. President Barack Obama's second term is marked by an agenda he says is aimed at helping middle class families.

Under his new proposed budget, the president is looking to expand a program that puts social workers in homes to work with parents as they raise children in at-risk communities. There is one such program in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Even before her 3-year-old son Daniel was born, Nidia Rios was welcoming workers from the Healthy Families Prince George’s program into her Brentwood, Maryland, home.

“I really like it. As a teen mom, it really helped me,” said Rios.

Rios had Daniel when she was only 16 years old. Despite being a young mother, she finished high school and is now aiming to become certified as a medical assistant.

She said help from Healthy Families worker Keisha Connor has been key. On this home visit, Connor checks in on everything from Daniel’s home environment to his health and development, asking the three-year-old if he can identify letters and make shapes.

The Healthy Families staff member gives advice on how Rios can resolve conflicts with her young son, while also telling her about local programs for his schooling.

“We want them to be able to link to resources. We want them to be able to have a support system and just be the best parents they can be,” said Connor.

Home visits

The Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program was established by Congress in 2010 to help address high poverty, infant mortality and teen birth rates by putting nurses, social workers and educators in at-risk homes.

The program’s goal is to guide parents on how to improve their family’s health and provide better opportunities for their children through regular, planned home visits.

In Dios’ case, she was receiving home visits while pregnant, with Healthy Families’ workers helping her find suitable prenatal care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says since the program’s inception, more than 1.4 million home visits have been conducted, with 80 percent of participating families having household incomes at or below the 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

Under the administration’s 2016 proposed budget, President Barack Obama is looking to expand the home visiting program, which served 115,000 parents and children nationwide last year.

The federal initiative is authorized until the end of this month. To continue, it needs reauthorization by Congress.

Obama’s budget includes a request for $500 million for the home visiting program beginning in October, and $15 billion over the next decade.

Early investment

From expanding childcare to making preschool more accessible, the president’s second term is marked by an agenda he says is aimed at helping middle-class families.

The U.S. president has long advocated expanding access to preschool and other programs to give all children a strong foundation.

During his 2013 State of the Union Address, he spoke of the importance of investing early.

“Every dollar we invest in high quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on -- by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” he said.

Liliana Janssen-Checa has seen the impact first-hand in her more than two decades with the Healthy Families Prince George’s program.

Now director, Janssen-Checa echoes President Obama, saying many long-term issues can be prevented if low-income mothers learn how to foster bonds with their children, as early as during pregnancy.

“Really, a lot of the problems we see, they are reactive. They are coming after the fact. We don’t want kids to be abused or kids who are not doing well in school because we didn’t do anything before,” said Janssen-Checa.

She said she welcomes the administration’s proposal to expand the federal initiative, which provides grants to local home visiting programs like Healthy Families Prince George’s. Janssen-Checa said the program not only tackles the county’s infant mortality and low birth rates, but saves taxpayers money later.

“If someone does not go to prenatal care and maybe there is a high risk pregnancy, that is going to cost the county and state three or four times the cost than if you really invested in this mom to go to prenatal care,” said the program director.

Back in Brentwood, Maryland, Rios looks on as her son practices his alphabet. With the help of Health Families, she said she not only is learning how to be a better mother, but also thinking about her child's future.

The young mother said she wants to enroll Daniel in Head Start -- a federal early-education program for low-income families.

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