June 20, 2008

Home visit programs help children succeed, experts say

By Jackie Best
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Julie Fenley, 29, did not know where to turn when her son was born with pulmonary hypertension and she learned he could have developmental problems, including hearing loss and delayed speech.

But then she became part of the Parents as Teachers program, which provided her with a person who helped her deal with her concerns and referred her to local resources, she said at a House committee hearing.

Fenley’s husband is in the Navy, so the educator also helped her to deal with raising two children while her husband was in training and when he returned home.

The condition affecting her son Zane, now 2, is caused by high blood pressure inside the lungs, which causes some newborns to have a hard time breathing.

The Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing about the “Education Begins at Home Act,” at which six witnesses discussed their experiences with early childhood home visits.

The visits are designed to help parents raise and interact with their children, through educators who come into their homes and provide support and advice.

Theses programs do not have any federal funding and are paid for through state, local and private funds.

The bipartisan legislation would provide $400 million to states, Indian tribes and territories over three years to help establish or expand early childhood education programs.

Fenley said before her husband left for training, he took care of disciplining their children, but after he left she was in charge. Their educator helped her and helped them to combine parenting skills when her husband came back.

“It helps me to become a better parent every day,” Fenley said.

The most important thing she learned, said Fenley, a stay-at-home-mom, is to encourage her children daily.

Heather B. Weiss, the founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project, said these programs are important because they help parents get information and skills needed to raise children.

“Home visits set a pathway of parental involvement,” she said.

Parenting is one of the strongest predictors of social and cognitive development. Parental involvement makes children more likely to succeed in school and less likely to face problems such as drug abuse, she said.

Laura A. Ditka, the deputy district attorney in Allegheny County, Pa., said she sees many cases of parents who love their children, but do not have the skills or knowledge to care for them properly.

For example, she has seen cases of drug abuse and cases when parents leave their children at home alone and they get hurt.

“These mothers loved their children. They did not want to harm their children. They simply did not have the knowledge not to leave their children at home,” Ditka said.

Home visitations and early intervention helps prevent some of these cases, she said.

But William A. Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said the legislation is too vague and leaves room for problems. The legislation would require hospitals and birthing centers to provide classes for new parents. All new parents would have to sign a form saying whether they wanted to take the class.

Estrada said he is concerned that parents would feel obligated to take the courses even if they disagree with the parenting philosophy being taught.

“This could lead to limits on parenting rights,” he said.

He was also concerned that the signature could lead to future problems for parents who decline to take the class.

Witnesses discussed six model programs:

· Early Head Start, which helps pregnant women and children under age 3;

· Healthy Families America, which helps promote positive parenting and helps prevent child abuse by serving more than 30,000 families in 407 communities each year;

· Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, which helps parents provide educational enrichment for children ages 3 to 5 in more than 15,000 families in 25 states and the District of Columbia;

· Parent-Child Home Program, which helps families with education barriers such as language or poverty by providing 2- and 3-year-olds at 150 sites with literacy and school readiness programs;

· Parents As Teachers, which serves about 241,000 families in all 50 states from pregnancy until their children enter kindergarten; and

· Nurse-Family Partnership, in which nurses promote healthy pregnancies, child health and development, and parent self-sufficiency through home visits in 22 states.

In Allegheny County, only 17 percent of eligible families are served, Ditka said.

“If there is some way we can make this broader, then I am all for it,” said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

All of the programs are voluntary, and it would be important for the legislation to create evaluations and assessments for all of the programs to make sure the funds are being used well, Weiss said.

“For many parents, the most valuable support offered is emotional,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

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