New parents ‘have a friend’ in Healthy Families

by Adele Uphaus

When Chelsea Neal found out earlier this year that she was pregnant, her very first thought was, “Let me contact Ivy.”

She wasn’t expecting to get pregnant again and she still didn’t have any family support in the area. But she wasn’t worried. Ivy Lee, a family support specialist with Healthy Families Rappahannock Area, had seen her through the birth of twins five years ago, connected her with resources, helped get her enrolled in an associate degree program and given her confidence in her parenting – and she knew she could do it again with Ivy’s support.

“She makes it so easy to ask for help, and often, I don’t even have to ask,” Neal said. “She’s like my subconscious.”

Healthy Families Rappahannock Area is a home visiting program that works with new parents in the Fredericksburg region, offering free, voluntary in-home support and guidance.

Family support specialists such as Ivy are trained in early childhood development and can help their clients access safety-net resources.

No income limits are required to receive services. Families at risk of child abuse or neglect can be referred to the program by their physicians, the hospital or social services – but anyone who feels they might benefit from the program can refer themselves, whether they are in crisis or not.

“Babies don’t come with handbooks,” said Melodie Jennings, who directs the program. “There’s no ‘how to’ guide and every single child is different. Sometimes it’s nice to have that support system to come in and normalize and guide you and be your #1 cheerleader.”

“Home visiting is a highly effective prevention strategy”

There are 29 Healthy Families programs active throughout the state of Virginia, and the program is just one of eight different models of home visiting under the umbrella of Early Impact Virginia, a nonprofit alliance of early childhood home visiting.

“All the models grew up or were developed for different reasons or out of different organizations, but they all come from the same base or foundational understanding that when we’re able to really support families from the earliest point and center our support around what their needs are and what their goals are for children and themselves, we can be really successful,” said Laurel Aparicio, executive director of Early Impact Virginia.

Home visiting is “a highly effective prevention strategy that can disrupt generational poverty while helping kids become prepared for school,” Aparicio said.

Home visiting in its different forms has been around for decades, has a strong base of evidence for its success and a high return on investment, reaching $5.70 for every dollar spent, according to Early Impact Virginia.

Last year, 572 family support professionals served more than 6,700 families statewide, according to Early Impact Virginia, and the services benefit both parents and children.

Mothers who participate in home visiting are less likely to give birth to pre-term babies. Children are more likely to be referred for intervention when developmental delays are evident. Parents with substance abuse or depression are more likely to be connected with resources to help with these conditions.

And while 50% of participating mothers reported that they themselves had been abused as children, more than 99% of participating children had no founded cases of child abuse or neglect, according to Healthy Families Virginia, the umbrella organization over the local Healthy Families program.

“If you are a parent that was raised to think that you didn’t matter, or that when you did something wrong, you were told you were stupid or got knocked upside the head, there’s a likelihood of you repeating that behavior if you’ve never had somebody to say, ‘Hey, there’s a different way,’” Jennings said.

A lack of funding and awareness

But statewide, home visiting programs reach less than 10% of the families that could benefit from their services, according to Early Impact Virginia.

That’s due to a combination of funding – which for Healthy Families comes from federal, state and local levels as well as private donations – workforce shortages and a lack of awareness.

Jennings said Healthy Families Rappahannock Area is currently serving 132 families with eight family support specialists. They have the capacity to serve up to 176 families, but there are two new family support specialists who keep their caseloads at half the maximum for the first year of their employment.

The majority of families in the local program are introduced to its services in the hospital, Jennings said. Healthy Families Rappahannock employs a family resource specialist who visits local hospitals and talks with parents after the baby has been delivered.

Local social services departments also refer families, but Jennings said she would love to see the number of self-referrals grow, rather than having to rely on overworked nurses and social workers.

In 2021, a baby died from malnourishment in Spotsylvania County. Jennings said she looked in her database to see if Healthy Families had ever received a referral about the baby’s family.

They hadn’t, but her mind still swirls with “what ifs.”

“What if the mom was watering down the baby’s formula because she didn’t know where to get the next can from? What if she was suffering from post-partum depression and no one knew the signs?” Jennings wonders.

If there was more awareness of the free, voluntary resources offered by Healthy Families Rappahannock, the outcome of this one case might have been different, she thinks.

“So we’ve started a community awareness open house,” Jennings said. “We invite anybody and everybody to come over, tell us about you and let us tell you about us. We know it takes a village. There should never be a parent that is having a child and they have to do this journey alone. We’re here, we’re free – let us help.”

“My life changed”

Local moms who receive home visits from Healthy Families Rappahannock Area told the Advance that they can’t imagine their lives without the support it gives them.

Zoe Williams, the mother of a six-month old son, said she was skeptical about home-visiting because she is a private person and she worried she would be judged.

But “my life has changed” since she was connected with a family support specialist, she said.

“I was on edge during my pregnancy,” Williams said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ But (her family support specialist) was someone I could vent to, who offered me reassurance. She checks on how I’m doing as a person. She texts throughout the week. She’s helped me connect with other moms. Now, I ask, ‘When are you coming? I need you!’”

Yvette Breaux said home visits through Healthy Families helped alleviate her fears over her daughter’s development. Her family support specialist was able to reassure her that children reach milestones on their own schedules.

Breaux has two young children just one year apart, and her family support specialist would bring activities for the older child so she could focus on the younger.

The visits were “something I could look forward to,” Breaux said. “She always made me feel like she wasn’t there to judge, but to help.”

Home visits can continue through Healthy Families Rappahannock until a child enters kindergarten, Jennings said. Many families don’t want to leave the program, so she asks them to act as “parent ambassadors.”

“I’ve been here for 19 years, and my proudest moments have been in the last three years when we hired three former participants,” Jennings said.

Rebekah Schumaker is one of them. She said she wants to pay forward the guidance and support she got from her family support specialist, who she credits with helping her leave a domestic violence situation.

“For me, she is what kept me going,” Schumaker said.