California is home to one out of every eight children in the U.S. Their needs are unique and, as this complicated year has proven, evolving. That’s why I’ve dedicated a more than 20-year-long career to understanding early childhood, including what children need to thrive during that pivotal period and throughout their lives.
During my time in the field, I’ve found and strongly believe that children in early childhood need a healthy and stable living environment most of all. Home-visiting programs help parents give their children just that — an environment in which their young children can grow and thrive.
These programs provide “parent coaching” from a trained professional, starting as early as pregnancy and extending into the first few years of a child’s life. It is during those years that the human brain experiences its most rapid development. At the same time, the young brain is also most vulnerable to the negative repercussions of adverse experiences during this period. The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the role that home-visiting professionals play in the lives of families. These professionals have pivoted to virtual visits through phone and video calls to help parents during this challenging public health crisis.
Though California has made incredible strides in supporting these programs, additional investments are necessary. California’s Home Visiting Program (funded by the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting [MIECHV] program) served 5,297 participants in 2,979 households. However, Santa Barbara County does not currently receive any MIECHV funding.
The State of Babies 2020 yearbook found that those households only make up one percent of families who could benefit from home-visiting programs. An alarming number of at-risk families in California do not have access to programs that will improve their quality of life, and our lawmakers need to take action to change that sad fact.
Kelley Barragan, director for Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health under the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, knows first-hand that additional funding is needed to either increase or expand both evidence-based and evidence-informed programs. With approximately 5,300 births in Santa Barbara County, Barragan’s Field Nursing Unit sees roughly 1 in every 6 births and works with those families to provide them with assessment, education, and linkage to services they need.
Improving infant and maternal health, increasing kindergarten readiness, and decreasing recidivism are just a few key reasons why Santa Barbara would benefit from increased resources for home-visiting programs. That need inspires the members of the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids to advocate for high-quality, accessible home visiting programs. I’m proud to be a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, and to serve on its executive board.
A recent Fight Crime: Invest in Kids research report found that programs for vulnerable families can reduce parental involvement in crime, lower rates of abuse and neglect, inspire academic achievement of participants’ children, and help decrease long-term abuse of substances such as opioids.
The law enforcement leaders who comprise the organization’s membership understand the connection between childhood neglect and crime, and how home visiting can play a pivotal role in keeping California neighborhoods safe. Child abuse is a persistent problem in Santa Barbara County and across the state, and victims of child abuse or neglect are twice as likely as their non-abused peers to commit a crime by age 19. In Santa Barbara County in 2017, 423 children were victims of abuse, which in the long-term can cost the county $114 million in incarceration costs, court fees, health care, and lost revenue from a depleted workforce.
There are currently a dozen or more home visiting/case management programs throughout Santa Barbara County. Before the pandemic, many of these home-visiting programs in Santa Barbara County and across the state were in need of expanded funding and new programs. The issue has only been exacerbated due to COVID, as many programs have had to switch to telephonic visits or stop visits altogether — as health professionals understandably shifted their focus toward combating the virus and taking care of sick patients.
Vulnerable families in California are under an immense amount of stress. The pandemic only increases the emotional and economic turmoil that already affects their everyday lives. The trust and mentorship these parents receive from home visiting programs are invaluable to their individual families and communities. Law enforcement leaders are particularly interested in the positive outcomes of home visiting programs, as these programs address the root of criminal activities in neighborhoods around California and the country.
To help deter crime in California and support at-risk families under significant pressure, home-visiting programs need additional funding to both increase and expand programs, as well as bolster staffing as demand grows. Providing greater access to these programs will ensure that they’re available to more families that need them.
Please reach out to your state lawmakers and ask them to prioritize increased investments and expansions of these programs in Santa Barbara County. Helping vulnerable parents, children, and communities will make our state — and our country — a safer, happier, and more prosperous place.
Joyce E. Dudley is Santa Barbara County District Attorney and was the former director of the county’s Head Start Programs. She serves on the executive board of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and the national organization, Prosecutors Against Gun Violence.