Were it not for the wise grandmas, aunties and doulas of human history, we’d have fizzled out long ago.
Ever since ancient times, struggling young mothers have turned to more experienced women for the surest ways to soothe their babies’ cries. Now, in an increasingly mobile and work-distracted society, new mothers often lack these sound mentors. Those stressed by poverty, single parenthood or lack of education feel the loss even more.
Fortunately, the Washington Legislature is currently hammering out the details on a new bill that would bring home visitation programs to families at high risk for child abuse and neglect. This bill simultaneously draws on the best of today’s social science research and the past’s rich tradition.
The bill would provide money for local grants to the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (while also changing its name to the Children’s Trust of Washington). Each community could decide which of several scientifically tested programs to adopt.
The bill is based primarily on the research of David Olds, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and preventive medicine at the University of Colorado and founder of the Nurse-Family Partnership.
Olds sends nurses into the homes of low-income new mothers during pregnancy and through the first two years of life. They follow a structured curriculum based on the key stages of child development and designed to enhance the mother’s life course and the baby’s physical and emotional health.
Results of Olds’ long-term studies have been remarkable. Compared with a control group, nurse-visited families in a 15-year follow-up had 48 percent less child abuse and neglect and 56 percent fewer visits to doctors or hospitals for childhood injuries. These children had 69 percent fewer convictions through age 15, and their mothers were 83 percent more likely to be employed by the time the child was 4 years old.
For people deeply concerned about helping children succeed in school, one more key measure catches the eye: Children in Olds’ studies were more likely to show up at kindergarten ready to learn.
The Legislature should be applauded for basing this bill on such solid research. Child welfare policy is too often based on outdated social science and the debunked notion that children are simply blank slates, waiting for adults to fill them with information.
Researchers now recognize that much of a child’s long-term success hinges on the quality of his relationships with the important people in the first years of his life as well as the security and stability of his environment. Public policy that ignores this knowledge can’t help but fail.
This bill has been proposed with a funding level of $8.4 million in the House and $1 million in the Senate. Now the legislators must negotiate the difference. They should keep in mind that a Rand study showed that over time, the Olds’ model would save as much as $4 in government spending for every $1 invested.
They should support this chance to provide distressed young mothers this scientific, yet traditional, remedy – a wise woman’s knock on the door.