The Star-Ledger Editorial Board published an article on June 12th applauding the expansion of home visitation programs serving new and expectant parents in New Jersey. Investment in voluntary home visitation and parent support services is a step in the right direction. Investments in children in the earliest years – as early as prenatally – have been found to have the strongest impact on lifelong health and well-being. The period from 0-3 represents the most significant time period in terms of rapid brain development and the best opportunity to get kids on a path for lifelong success.
There is a lack of understanding about home visitation programs, which are viewed by some as invasive, unnecessary, and wasteful of taxpayer money. These views are tied to the perception that home visitation programs are an attempt to remedy the “ills” of society – poverty, single parenthood, and teen pregnancy. While these programs may primarily be available to families who are low-income or otherwise deemed “at-risk” for child maltreatment, all parents can benefit from the support of a home visitor. These are not programs for poor people. These are programs for parents who need support. And let’s be realistic – all new parents need support.
Public policies in the US have been based on the assumption that private, informal networks are sufficient to help most parents care for their children. But traditional support networks are not what they used to be. Extended families are separated by distance and life circumstances. Women are working almost as often as men, which means many grandmothers, aunts, and other supports are not there to assist moms on a day-to-day basis. Fathers are stepping up to the plate as equal partners in parenting – often without preparation, role models, or social acceptance of their value.
Relying on traditional support networks is no longer adequate. Few realize the grim outlook for children born in the United States when compared to the remainder of the developed world. The U.S. ties with Mexico for the highest child abuse death among all industrialized nations – triple that of Canada and 11 times that of Italy. To put this in perspective, in the past decade, the US has lost almost four times as many children to abuse and neglect on our home soil than the number of US forces killed in the same time period in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot ignore these truths, and the only responsible course of action is to break from tradition and consider alternatives.
For those who think that prevention programming is wasteful, consider that we spend an estimated $104 billion annually paying for the after effects of child abuse and neglect. This is a conservative estimate, taking into consideration the costs of healthcare, child welfare, criminal justice, and special education that are often a result of child maltreatment. Based on population size, New Jersey’s share of that bill is an estimated $3 billion. We spend $600 million alone in this State on child protective services, which is only after an incident of abuse has been reported. In contrast, the mere $9.4 million allocated to expand home visitation programs that are proven through 25 years of research to prevent child abuse and neglect seems like a wise investment. We can grow healthy children now, or spend exceedingly more responding to the effects of child abuse later. This is not a question of throwing more money at a problem – but rather spending our taxpayer money more efficiently. And the cost savings pale in comparison to the quality of the life improvements for our children.
Universal home visitation is the norm in much of the industrialized world. Countries that provide home visiting to all newborn children also have the lowest rates of child maltreatment and much better overall outcomes for maternal and child health. It has been said that “children’s health is a nation’s wealth” as investments in children today will lead to a more intelligent and competent workforce to compete in the global economy of the future. The expansion of home visitation in New Jersey is the right move to strengthen families during the opportune time – when parenting begins – to get kids off to the best possible start.