First-time mothers and other parents around the state are in line to get extra resources through new federal home-visiting grants, including a competitive grant the state won on Thursday.

The competitive grant will amount to about $3 million a year for the next four years. It will expand the Erikson Institute-run Fussy Baby Network, which helps parents cope with difficult-to-soothe infants, as well as programs that use doulas (trained childbirth assistants) to help first-time mothers. The money will also pay for studies of the two programs.

Illinois will also receive another $7.1 million to support home visits, from funding established in the federal health care reform bill.

With that money, services will expand in Englewood, West Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, Cicero Township, Elgin, Macon County, Rockford, and Vermillion County. Home visiting programs across the state will get extra resources.

“It’s not as simple as serving more families, but also serving families that are harder to reach,” says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.

The grant projects will aim to build collaboration among different early childhood health and education agencies in each community. Gaylord Gieseke, vice president of Voices for Illinois Children, says the goal is to eventually move toward a universal screening process.

“With every child born, the family would have a brief assessment, a screening, and then follow-up for identified services and supports that could be helpful,” Gieseke says, “The goal over time is universal touch–that every family welcoming a child has an opportunity to be engaged with someone who will talk to them.”

The aim is to connect the most at-risk families, such as those where substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, or developmental delays in parents occur, with home visiting and other services.

Currently, about 20,000 families receive home visiting services at a cost to the state of almost $50 million per year. (There are about 170,000 children born in the state each year.) One-quarter of families are in programs funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services; the rest are in state Early Childhood Block Grant birth-to-3 programs.

There are several home visiting programs now in place, including Healthy Families, which focuses on health and child abuse prevention; Nurse-Family Partnership, which helps women have healthy pregnancies and provides them with support until their children are two-and-a-half; and Parents as Teachers, which focuses on early learning activities to prepare children for preschool and kindergarten.

“They are all seeking to do the same thing – build relationships with mothers and families, and use those to support healthy development,” Rauner says.

However, one observer cautioned that the federal funding – though significant – is not a panacea.

“One thing to keep in mind is that the need in these communities so far outstrips what we’ve been given from the federal government to do this home visiting,” she said. “What they’re really trying to do is learn how to scale up. [But] communities are going to have to figure out in the long haul where to get this money. You can’t just build out a program and have the money stop.”

She added: “You want to be excited because it’s money. It’s a program that works and has a good track record. But it’s not like it can revolutionize things on such a small scale.”

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