Home visiting programs for young children: solid benefits, not so solid funding

Mar 26, 2014

Credit flickr/_-o-_

Before Aurora Ducket was even born, her mom Angela signed up for every program she could.

"I did the MOMS program through Spectrum Health," she told me. "I really liked them a lot. They would come to my house. They would listen to the baby’s heartbeat. They would give me pamphlets upon pamphlets of what to expect, different things that I could do." 

After Aurora was born, Angela Ducket signed up for more programs, including one called Healthy Start, which also involved home visits with a social worker who helped her with things like transportation, and tracking her daughter’s development.

"And you do this little test every week," she told me. "And then they send you back your kid's score and you can work on what they were lacking or what they weren’t."

The programs that were helping Ducket and her daughter were not all run by the same organization. Not all had the same purpose. The common factor was the home visits.

Over the past few decades, the idea of how to help new parents has shifted. Hospitals still offer classes or groups where parents can get information. But more and more programs have begun to focus on how to help parents by helping them where they live.

The rise in home visit programs comes with increasing evidence about their effectiveness – particularly their cost effectiveness. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates home visiting programs save $2 for every $1 spent.

But while research on home visiting is solid, funding is not.

"It does go up and down," says Brandi Alexander, Healthy Start coordinator at Family Futures in Grand Rapids." It really is just kind of based on where people are interested at the time."

Alexander says when one source of funding dries up for a home visit program, staffers have to be let go. If funding comes back from a different source, organizations like Family Futures have to go through a hiring process, and a training process for new workers. It’s not the most efficient way of doing things.

"So we are trying to be able to find those niches of funding that are longer term,” Alexander says.

One source of funding Alexander is hoping she can count on is the The Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, or MIECHV for short. It’s federally funded. Over five years, MIECHV offered $1.5 billion for home visit programs across the country. Michigan has gotten about $31 million of those dollars, some of which is expected to go to Family Futures for the Healthy Start program to replace workers who were let go just a few years ago.

"What happened with Family Futures is an experience that many home visiting programs around the state had," says Nancy Peeler, who manages the Child Health Care unit for the Michigan Department of Community Health. She says Family Futures, and other organizations could be headed for another funding downturn. The MIECHV program is scheduled to expire at the end of September.  

"It’s been a real learning curve for us to be able to really figure it out and understand and to be very strategic about maximizing what we can accomplish with the funding," she says of the funding ups and downs.

Peeler says finding stable funding is an ongoing goal. In the meantime, if Congress doesn’t renew the MIECHV funding by this fall, she estimates about 1,000 fewer Michigan families will be able to get help from a home visit program.