In-home visitation programs for new mothers and early childhood learning cannot be slashed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, advocates said Wednesday.

The visits improve the overall health and mental health of parents in low-income and minority communities, advocates said.

New York, which has a task force on maternity and maternal outcomes, must maintain its voluntary maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting programs, which decrease child abuse and neglect, improves health outcomes for mom and baby, increases school readiness and saves money in reduced health care and education costs.

State and local programs such as Power of Two, Nurse Family Partnership, SafeCare, Healthy Families NY, Early Head Start and others, strengthens families with young children by meeting with families in their homes and directly providing or connecting families with health, mental health, parenting and other supports and services, depending on each family’s unique needs, according to data from the state Council on Children and Families.

“We are all really feeling the stress of the pandemic, let alone pregnant women and mothers of newborns,” Assemblywoman Pat Fahy said during a virtual press conference Wednesday. “We are all living in a very unsettling time. Home visits are about prevention and connection. Prevention works.”

There are 1,375,156 children under age 6 in the state, and 311,103, or 23%, of them live in poverty, according to National Center for Children in Poverty data.

The state expects broad 20% budget cuts to education, health care and localities in the wake of a nearly $30 billion deficit over two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could place in-home visitation programs on the chopping block.

Fahy, D-Albany, introduced a bill for a public education campaign about the state’s in-home visitation programs. The programs are needed more than ever as parents face higher rates of mental health and substance abuse during the pandemic.

Fahy co-sponsored Assembly bill A3276 last year, which was signed into law last Aug. 1, establishing maternal mortality review boards and the maternal mortality and morbidity advisory council.

The state had 704,466 live births in a three-year span, and approximately 314,765 of those young children live in families with income below 200% of the federal poverty level. The funded capacity of state home visiting programs is about 17,509, or the state has the home-visiting capacity to serve 6% of babies in low-income families and 3% of all children up to age 3.

“Anxiety is contagious — I’ve never met a mom with a newborn that is not overwhelmed,” Fahy said. “These programs are an investment in our communities ... This is New York. We can absolutely do better.”

The programs provide education to families in low-income and minority neighborhoods statewide, and provide education about child development, food assistance, health insurance and opioid treatment, among other essential services.

Children in communities of color are most at risk, said Melodie Baker, national policy director for Just Equations and co-chair of Raising NY.

“Investing in home visiting is a prevention approach to limiting exposure to poverty-inducing circumstances,” said Baker, adding young families in poverty suffer more from mental health issues — especially in the wake of the coronavirus, which more greatly impacted families on Medicaid.

In-home visitation programs need more funding because of the pandemic, Baker said, so visitors feel safe and protected entering other residences during the pandemic and can support the whole family.

More funding is necessary for home visits, or virtual visits, Baker said.

“While children have not been as affected [by COVID-19], those families need adequate support,” she added. “I believe we are going to get over this virus, but what we do know is children in low-income and black and brown [families] will be working with this for years on end.

“We don’t want to just continue to talk and discuss what the challenges look like. We really need to make some efforts to close those gaps so that the burden of inequity, racism and implicit, institutional bias does not fall on the shoulders of the vulnerable population.”

Home visitation programs support all families, including assisting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kate Breslin, president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, said government has a responsibility to invest in early-intervention and childhood education programs proven to help New York families.

Early childhood and maternal visitation programs are an effective strategy to address social and economic racial inequalities, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Breslin said.

“Right now, we need to look at that even more,” Breslin said, adding programming availability widely varies across the state. “...How do we improve opportunity for all New Yorkers, and especially those who are struggling right now?

“...Anytime there’s a cut in funding at any level, that diminishes capacity,” she added. “When capacity is diminished, it often takes a long time to ramp it back up — even when funding is restored.”

Advocates noted the need for federal coronavirus aid to U.S. states and localities, echoing the request Gov. Andrew Cuomo, top state officials and governors across the nation have made for months.

“We know the state is in a fiscal hole,” Breslin said. “We are very much looking to the federal government to help New York state, especially to preserve these very, very important programs. We’re trying to get increased investment and to ward off cuts.

“...We are looking for others to help us make the case that we need to make sure we continue to invest in things that reduce inequities, improve outcomes for moms and babies and create opportunity in communities that are really struggling right now mid-pandemic.”

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