Research has shown home visits reduce the likelihood of pregnancy complications, infant deaths, family violence and child maltreatment. They also contribute to improved parenting practices and school readiness. Credit: Stock photo

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Michael Gahagan is chief of the Caribou Police Department and a member of the Maine Children’s Trust board of directors and a member of Fight Crime: Invest In Kids. Ben Gilman, an attorney in Portland, is chair of the Maine Children’s Trust board of directors and a member of ReadyNation.

As we turn the page on summer, we are starkly aware that Congress has just one month to address its unfinished business, a key piece of which is the reauthorization of an important funding stream that has provided support to thousands of families in Maine, the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program.

That’s a big title and we would like to explain why the voluntary home visiting services provided to Maine families with infants and toddlers are so important.

MIECHV funding supports the Maine Families Home Visiting Program, a voluntary program available in every county in Maine. Family visitors and families develop strong relationships and trust through meeting regularly and addressing families’ needs during the critical period of pregnancy and birth to age 3. Family visitors help ensure safe home environments, promote healthy growth and development for infants and toddlers, and provide parents with key connections to needed services. The family visitors use a non-judgmental and compassionate approach that empowers parents with skills, tools, and confidence to nurture the healthy growth of their baby.

Now in its 22nd year, Maine Families remains one of the state’s most critical cost-saving investments to improve childhood health and learning outcomes, prevent child abuse and neglect, enhance future productivity, and reduce future demand on tax supported services.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, there were 4,263 cases of child abuse and neglect last year. That is 4,263 too many.  The majority of child welfare cases are due to findings of neglect, which in most cases are preventable by providing parenting and financial supports to reduce the stressors in these families’ lives.  In addition to reducing the family stressors that can lead to child abuse and neglect, family visitors play a vital role connecting parents to others in our communities who can support them and their young children, like pediatricians, early education programs and other parents.

This two-generation program has many positive and immediate results for Maine children.  In 2021, the Maine Families Home Visiting Program participated in more than 19,000 home visits with 1,665 families and 1,739 children. During that time, Maine Families served 118 families involved in Child Protective Services at enrollment; 100 of whom had no further reports for child abuse and neglect during their participation with Maine Families.

In addition, 89 percent of the Maine Families’ children had up-to-date immunizations, compared to 71 percent of all children statewide. Almost all of the children, 97 percent, had a primary care provider, 99 percent had health insurance and 75 percent were up-to-date with their most recent well-child check-up. Parent participants also reduced babies’ exposure to secondhand smoke and improved their homes’ safety.

Voluntary home visiting programs also are an extraordinarily wise investment. Not only has this program helped to strengthen families, it has also lowered health care costs, reduced the need for costly remedial education for children, and helped families become more self-sufficient.  Maine Families improves the lives of our youngest and most at-risk citizens and helps support their parents to give their children a healthy and nurturing start.

Home visiting programs are one of the most effective tools proven to prevent child abuse and neglect, and, as such, it is critical that Congress act to reauthorize and expand the funding that the federal MIECHV program provides.