Most weekday mornings, you can find Lindsey Saenz knocking on doors among the neighborhoods in Bedford County. She’s a familiar visitor. Most families regularly welcome her into their living rooms where they chat about their weeks, maybe discuss their latest challenges, all while playing with their children and building blocks on the floor. It’s a chance for Lindsey to do what she’s been trained to do: generously doling out advice, compassion and an encouraging smile.
Lindsey is a trusted family support professional with Healthy Families Central Virginia, one of the 71 local programs offering no-cost home visiting services in Virginia. The work she and her nearly 600 home visiting peers across the state are doing is helping create healthier families and generational change for children and communities.
Perhaps unfamiliar to many people, home visiting has a long track record of setting up Virginia families for success. For 30 years, local home visiting programs have been connecting pregnant and parenting families to a trained, family support professional who provides family-centered coaching and guidance from pregnancy through the early stages of a child’s development, from birth to age five. Home visitors are a lifeline for families during these critical early years.
Parents can sign up for home visiting programs and partner with family support professionals to get help with health, educational, financial and parenting goals. Most of all, Virginia’s home visiting professionals focus on supporting healthy child development and parenting skills.
The impact of home visiting goes beyond individual families. Research tells us it is Virginia’s most effective strategy for strengthening communities. By supporting healthy pregnancies and births, building strong, nurturing parent-child relationships, increasing family self-sufficiency and ensuring children enter school fully prepared to succeed, home visiting also is one of Virginia’s smartest investments. For every dollar spent on home visiting programs, there is a $5.70 return. Put simply, home visiting works.
In 2018, Virginia’s General Assembly recognized the important role that local home visiting programs play in strengthening communities by empowering Early Impact Virginia with the responsibility of preparing the home visiting statewide workforce, reporting outcomes, ensuring continuous quality improvement and updating lawmakers on statewide progress and needs.
Working together with Virginia’s home visiting programs, public partners and early childhood development stakeholders, Early Impact Virginia led the development of the Virginia Plan for Home Visiting. Our goal is to ensure all pregnant and parenting families in Virginia have access to high-quality, early childhood home visiting. The 10-year plan adopted in 2020 sets a strategic blueprint for effective, efficient and collaborative growth of home visiting.
Today, home visiting supports nearly 7,000 families in Virginia, but there is room for growth. A total of 182,723 young children in our state live below the federal poverty level and could benefit from home visiting. Meanwhile, the availability of home visiting per jurisdiction remains variable, leaving small pockets of Virginia without a single home visiting program.
At the same time, parents are experiencing greater challenges, especially when it comes to mental health. Skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression, substance use, community violence, maternal and infant mortality coupled with pandemic learning losses and developmental delays are all contributing to unprecedented family stress and uncertainty.
We know home visiting must be part of the solution. Data collected by Early Impact Virginia demonstrates the power of home visitors to help solve an array of challenges, from reducing the percentage of babies born pre-term to supporting new parents with perinatal depression or substance use disorders with effective treatment. Parents working with home visiting professionals also saw increases in employment, and almost half the families struggling with unmet food needs saw their situations improve over the course of a year. With outcomes like these, home visiting remains one of Virginia’s greatest resources for building healthy parenting and reducing the incidence of child abuse and neglect.
Our work, of course, is far from done. To address health disparities and equity, we are working to expand the reach and impact of home visiting in Virginia. Early Impact Virginia and its partners are focused on systematic, data-driven and collaborative approaches to successfully build community services, while bolstering home visitor workforce development and widening family access to services so any caregiver can access home visiting how and where they choose.
Home visiting is a critical investment in Virginia’s children, families and communities. While we have numerous complex problems to solve, leaders of Virginia’s home visiting programs recognize that some of the best answers can be found in a living room or at the kitchen table – and the lessons can last for generations.
Laurel Aparicio is executive director at Early Impact Virginia and can be reached at email@example.com..