Being a first-time parent is hard. Some people are fortunate to have a supportive network — neighbors, churches and the tribal community — where they can turn for help. This is not the case for too many young mothers and fathers across the state who are left without guidance or support as they embark on the parenthood journey alone. And, as I saw far too many times during my years in law enforcement, when young parents are left without guidance and coaching, a cycle of abuse and neglect sometimes follows.
In addition to harming the lives of countless children, this abuse and neglect can have a detrimental impact on public safety. In fact, research shows that approximately half of youth arrested for delinquency had been abused or neglected earlier in their lives. Another study found that victims of abuse and neglect were twice as likely to have committed a crime by age 19 and were 29 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime as juveniles or adults than those who were not.
The good news is that when young parents get the effective coaching and tools they need to succeed, this cycle can be broken. Through a practice known as voluntary home visiting, trained professionals — such as nurses — become mentors to young, at-risk mothers. They teach them how to be healthy during pregnancy, how to understand their child’s health needs and how to safely discipline a child. For example, home visitors highlight the mother’s role as their child’s first teacher and help coach mothers about the importance of reading and talking to their child. Through this work, young mothers learn to engage with their children and develop parenting skills that enhance their child’s development.
Research from these high-quality programs shows positive results. Home visiting offered through the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program, which operates in New Mexico and in communities across the nation, has been shown in some studies to cut child abuse in half. A different trial found that children who participated in Parents as Teachers, another home visiting program available in New Mexico and other states, were healthier and better prepared for school than children who did not participate.
Positive results for both mothers and their children can last for years. A long-term study of the NFP program found that mothers who did not receive home visits had more than three times as many convictions as mothers who did participate. Similarly, by the time their daughters were 19, those who did not receive NFP home visits were nine times more likely to have been convicted than those who had received them as babies and toddlers.
The even better news is that New Mexico has been a leader in providing home visiting services to many young mothers throughout the state — and support for the program has continued to grow. In fact, in fiscal year 2015 more than 33,000 home visits were conducted across 27 counties — helping more than 2,200 families in the state.
In addition to the crime prevention benefits, New Mexico residents have another reason to celebrate the success and growth of these programs — taxpayer savings. Many at-risk families struggle to make it on their own and their repeated challenges are costly to society. But one study found that the NFP home visiting program produces an average savings of $17,000 per family served, due in part to savings from improvements in children’s health and reductions in future crime.
Over the past few years, New Mexico has continued to expand and ensure the quality of these programs. I applaud Gov. Susana Martinez for her continued work to help many families receive this valuable coaching. I also applaud the New Mexico Legislature for its continued bipartisan support for voluntary home visiting.
We are fortunate to live in a state where many residents put down roots and stay for generations to shape our culture and our customs. Working together as parents, grandparents, and advocates for children, we can strengthen our families and communities by urging legislators to make home visiting a priority now and in the years to come.
Dr. Lanny Maddox is past president of the New Mexico Association Chiefs of Police and former Ruidoso Chief of Police.