- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2017

Thousands of D.C. families need help navigating early parenthood, but the programs intended to help them are understaffed and underfunded.

About 6,300 households in the city with children 5 years old or younger could benefit from so-called home visit programs, but only about 1,300 families in 2015 were able to get the service, says a new report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor.

The report from D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson says that home visit programs help reduce child fatalities from abuse and neglect, a conclusion iterated last year in a report from the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

“In-home visits by trained providers working with low-income and otherwise vulnerable parents with newborn and young children have been proven to positively impact school readiness and child health and welfare,” says the D.C. Auditor’s report, which was written and researched by the advocacy group D.C. Action for Children.

D.C. Council member Vince Gray, who heads the Health Committee, was not available for comment before press time. A spokesman for Mr. Gray said the Ward 7 Democrat has seen the auditor’s report.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Muriel Bowser, said that home visitation “is a critical strategy to reach higher-risk communities.”

The District has implemented several initiatives to improve recruitment and retention in the home visit programs, such as expanded hours for home visitation and professional development of home visitors to strengthen relationships with families, Mr. Harris said.

The city’s growing population has heightened the challenge: As the city has grown, its families have trended younger. And many of those families’ children are being born in Ward 8.

According to the auditor’s report, Ward 8 is home to about 9,755 children age 5 and younger. That’s compared to about 5,000 to 6,000 pre-schoolers in each of the other wards, except Ward 2, which largely consists of the downtown business are outside of the residential neighborhoods of Georgetown.

Nearly a quarter of the 40,000 children age 5 and younger in the District live below the poverty level. In Ward 8, that figure jumps to 50 percent. Comparatively, only 3 percent of children in Ward 3 live in poverty.

Home visit programs are supported by federal and local funding from multiple local agencies, including the D.C. Department of Health, the Child and Family Services Agency and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education. Much of the time, grants are awarded to private home-visit providers like Mary’s Center and Community of Hope that are overseen by local agencies.

In 2015, the District received just over $1 million in federal funds via the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Nearly the same amount was pledged in local funding that year.

Shana Bartley, acting executive director of D.C. Action for Children, said the programs are designed to be flexible and match families’ needs, but since funding and staffing are so limited, programs in the District are focused on prenatal support and aid until the child turns 2 or 3 years old.

“Home visitors make sure that parents have all the information about building relationships, strong parent/child attachment and early childhood development,” Ms. Bartley said in an interview.

She said the program does not target families from a punitive standpoint, but rather makes sure that first-time parents have the knowledge they need to raise a child.

“It’s like having a trusted adviser that has worked with other parents before,” Ms. Bartley said.

But it isn’t always easy, and beyond the funding problem, the lack of staffing can be attributed to low salaries and demanding work.

“Those who do it are very invested in it,” Ms. Bartley said. “But we need to find opportunities to better compensate home visitors, to grow in their careers. The work is time intensive and requires to travel around the city. These home visitors are advocates and friends to families, helping them navigate multiple systems.”

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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