A bill working its way through the state legislature would create a state-funded program to help new mothers in the first few months and years after the birth of their children.
The CalWORKs Baby Wellness and Family Support Home Visiting Program would spend $100 million to offer home visits from nurses or social workers to new mothers who are living in poverty.
Support for home visiting programs is grounded in research that has found regular postpartum home visits can improve the health of both mothers and their babies, prevent child abuse and neglect, support positive parenting and promote healthy child development and school readiness.
Diana Careaga, a program officer for home visitation for the early childhood services organization First 5 LA, said regular home visits can help stressed-out new moms become more confident parents. If they're struggling financially, their home visitor can also connect them with resources that might ease their burden.
"Really the goal is supporting the parent-child relationship, and it promotes attachment and bonding as well as economic self-sufficiency and children’s readiness for school for future success," Careaga said.
Postpartum home visitation also includes screenings for postpartum depression, and Careaga said up to 20 percent of Los Angeles County mothers already enrolled in a home visiting program report mental health concerns. Home visitors can connect these women with mental health services.
But Careaga says new mothers who don't have depression can also struggle. Home visitors can also help them.
"Mothers reach out and say, ‘I’m having this challenge,' and it’s a great support for moms," Careaga said. "It may be a simple answer they need, or just reassurance, and just some tips, and so that is usually just enough to get them through."
First 5 LA’s director of family supports, Barbara Andrade Dubransky, said helping new moms who are experiencing stress is perhaps one of the most valuable things home visitors can offer, because people are often reluctant to ask for help.
"Having home visiting available says you don’t have to ask for help, we’re going to offer it, but it could be in any range of areas," said Dubransky. "So it might be just, ‘I really want to breastfeed, but this is way harder than I thought it was going to be,’ or, ‘I don’t have a lot of friends, and I just wish I had a group of friends that I could talk to,’ all the way to people who carry a lot of stressors in their life, whether it’s, ‘I don’t have enough food in the house that I’m going to take this baby to.’"
The CalWORKs Baby Wellness and Family Support Home Visiting Program would fund prenatal home visits, and postpartum visits until the child is two-years-old, but Dubransky said the funding will allow them to help a lot more mothers, regardless of socioeconomic status.
"The way we see it is when money comes through the door for a certain population it can allow us to shift," Dubransky said. "So if we have other money in the county and we think we have enough coverage of that program for the families that are eligible, it means that we can maybe shift some of the resources already in that program to something else."
But child development experts think the need is most acute in families living in poverty.
Dubranksy said home visits that support healthy child development and positive parenting save taxpayers in the long run "because for families that, without some assistance in the earliest phases of their child’s life, are going to experience the child welfare system, public social services, and there’s a core group of families in the county that are likely to interact with so many departments that there’s a huge cost."
She says that cost can be minimized with early intervention.
The bill – if passed - would give up to 12,000 California families access to home visits. It's currently in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which is considering the cost of the bill. The committee will vote on it on May 26th.