Voluntary home visiting programs in Aroostook deserve continued support
As a father and grandfather, I’ll be the first person to tell you that babies don’t come with instruction manuals. Despite the decades of joy I’ve experienced as a dad, I remember many days when I felt a lot of stress and many moments when I wondered if I was up to the job. Fortunately, I was surrounded by friends and family members who helped me be the best parent I could be.
Many other parents aren’t so fortunate. Those who are young, inexperienced and without support or sufficient financial resources can become overwhelmed with the pressures of raising kids. Too often this situation leads to child abuse and neglect — an especially significant problem here in Maine, where there were more than 3,200 documented cases in one recent year alone.
The good news is that help can be available in the form of voluntary home visitors. These are family support professionals who parents invite into their homes for advice and friendship. They help parents prepare for and deal appropriately with the many stressful situations that can arise with newborns, infants and toddlers, and learn how to make their homes safer for children.
Any young parent who’s gotten good advice from their own mom or dad or older family members knows on a gut level how important this guidance can be. On March 20, I had the opportunity to cite research that proves it when I submitted written testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services in support of new home visiting legislation.
I spoke at length about how Maine Families — a premier home visiting program here in our state — worked intensively with 160 families who had been involved with Child Protective Services in 2018. More than 90 percent of those families had no further reports of child abuse or neglect during their time with the program.
Health outcomes for children who have participated in the Maine Families program are also impressive. Last year, 92 percent of those kids between the ages of 19 and 36 months had up-to-date immunizations; 99.9 percent had an identified primary care provider; 98 percent had health insurance, and 72 percent were up-to-date with their checkups.
As a longtime member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, I can also refer to longitudinal studies that followed children and parents who participated in high quality home visiting programs and found significant reductions in child abuse and neglect, and lower involvement in later crime by children. Many parents also benefited by continuing their education and becoming productive members of the workforce.
For these reasons and more, I’m encouraging Maine’s lawmakers to support proposed legislation — L.D. 1225 — that will increase funding for home visiting services for foster families taking care of infants and also strengthen the skills of our home visiting workforce. That workforce is especially challenged by their workload. At Aroostook Council for Healthy Families, there are only seven home visitors, who currently serve about 100 families.
The extra funding is especially important given the fact that it typically takes about a year to fully train a home visitor, and because the Aroostook program in particular has been understaffed for the past four years. Meanwhile, as funding lags, we have good reason to worry that our home visitors will leave for better paying jobs elsewhere.
Everything I’ve written here is reinforced by my experiences on the board of directors of the Maine Children’s Trust and as an officer of Aroostook Council for Healthy Families. It’s also backed by my long career in law enforcement and my determination to prevent crime in the future to ensuring today’s kids grow up healthy, well-educated and prepared for productive lives.
Michael Gahagan is the Caribou chief of police. He also serves on the board of the Maine Children’s Trust.