A new report on a state-funded home-visiting initiative to connect pregnant mothers and new parents with services and aid and to detect risks in a home — such as domestic violence, substance abuse or perinatal depression — shows a nearly threefold growth in the program over the past five years and steady improvement in the quality of care that families receive.

Prepared by the state Children, Youth and Families Department and The University of New Mexico’s Center for Education Policy Research, the annual home-visiting accountability report says state investments in the program sharply increased to $15.5 million in fiscal year 2016 from about $2.5 million in 2012 — and to more than $18 million in the current fiscal year. The initiative now serves more than 4,000 families in 29 of the state’s 33 counties. The overwhelming majority of the families are low-income minorities, and hundreds of the parents are teenagers.

The assessment follows the release late last year of a Rand Corp. study that found infants in one such program in Santa Fe, First Born, were one-third less likely to visit an emergency room in their first year of life. About 30 nonprofits contract with the state to offer the First Born model and similar home-visiting services.

Home-visiting programs, hailed nationwide as the foundation for early childhood education and a key tool in preventing child abuse and neglect, also have a medical component. Often, visiting nurses provide child and parent health screenings and preventive care.

The results of the Rand study and the accountability report show the programs in New Mexico are having a positive effect on a growing number of families in the state. Child welfare advocates hope that trend can continue as the state, rated in recent weeks by reports as the worst place in the nation to raise a child, wrangles with a budget crisis.

“There’s no doubt that these are really challenging economic times,” said Claire Dudley Chavez of the United Way of Santa Fe County, an organization that is solely focused on early childhood services.

The home-visiting initiative has drawn bipartisan backing for several years, including support from Gov. Susana Martinez, Dudley Chavez said. She believes that support will continue.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for the Children, Youth and Families Department, agreed that Martinez and lawmakers have been supportive of funding increases for the initiative. Even during last year’s special session of the Legislature, when most state agencies saw their budgets slashed, the child welfare department received $1.5 million more for the current fiscal year and was able to put $900,000 of it into home visiting, he said.

Varela said the agency isn’t expecting increases for fiscal year 2018 as lawmakers continue belt-tightening, but child welfare officials will focus on further improving the program.

“Progress has been made, and we’ve been happy with the trajectory,” he said, “… but there’s always more work to be done to improve the programs.”

Dudley Chavez and other United Way representatives co-hosted a “community conversation” on home visiting Thursday in Albuquerque and will hold another public event Tuesday in Santa Fe for early learning advocates, workers, parents, policymakers and others to discuss the new report’s findings and ways to make more strides.

Among the outcomes highlighted in the report: a higher rate of women in the program in fiscal year 2016 received early prenatal care compared to the general population in the state; more than half of the pregnant women who reported use of drugs and alcohol quit using substances by their second trimester; more than 300 children were referred to services for developmental delays; and nearly 400 families sought behavioral health services.

Dudley Chavez said most home-visiting programs also focus on early literacy, encouraging parents to talk, sing and read to their babies. And home visitors help steer children to quality child care and pre-kindergarten programs, she said.

Hailey Heinz of UNM’s Center for Education Policy Research, one of the authors of the report, said, “One key takeaway is that the system is expanding, and it’s expanding with pretty solid quality controls. … This certainly shows that New Mexico has gotten a return on its investment.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

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