Program helps thousands of young mothers learn to be better parents

By Brian Sodoma, Special for the Arizona Lottery

Two years ago, Leila Robbins was hospitalized for an entire month before giving birth to her first child. That trying experience, however, came with some big positives. She delivered a healthy daughter, Zara, who is now a thriving 2-year-old exceeding developmental goals. Robbins also appreciates an important relationship established during that long hospital stay – one that still serves her family today.

A hospital social worker referred her to Healthy Families Arizona, a statewide program that supports young mothers and their families develop bonds with their children while learning parenting basics. Robbins, now 27, has a second child, with her husband Ryan. Together they are a self-sufficient family unit, thanks in part to the Healthy Families program.

“It’s really helped with learning about different milestones and to help us understand the needs and development of our children,” she said.

In fiscal year 2015, $5.9 million in Arizona Lottery funds went to support the Healthy Families program, from which more than 4,000 Arizona families like the Robbins’ benefit each year. With the help of those dollars, mothers learn about empathy, that critical ingredient parents need when facing those tough sleep-depraved early days after a child is born.

“The earlier you can build that positive parent-child relationship, the better your child’s long-term outcomes are going to be,” added Anne-Marie Salazar, assistant director of family support services for Southwest Human Development, a nonprofit organization that administers the Maricopa County Healthy Families program and also helped Robbins.

Providing Positive Value

This year, Healthy Families celebrates its 25th year in Arizona. In fiscal year 2015, the organization supported more than 4,900 Arizona families with in-home visits by social workers who provide child development and parenting materials; family support; and linkage with other community resources. Healthy Families Arizona is part of a nationally accredited, evidenced-based home visiting program for new parents and their children.

“All our staff have degrees and we provide a significant amount of training each year. They are all highly qualified and educated. … We’re not just trying different things. These are proven strategies that increase child safety and wellbeing,” added Mary-Laura Brooks, a Southwest Human Development Healthy Families manager.

Susan Smith heads up the office of prevention at the Department of Child Safety (DCS). DCS receives funding from the Arizona Lottery and partners with First Things First, the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS), and, Maternal Infant and Early Child Home Visitation (MIECHV) to administer 12 Healthy Families sites across Arizona.

Smith says program research has found that young mothers who are involved with Healthy Families before childbirth report fewer babies born preterm with low birth weight, and fewer babies who are exposed to substances compared to those enrolled after birth. A family can enroll prenatally or prior to the child turning 3 months old and remain in the program until the child is 5 years old.

“Those engaged in the program have healthier babies, and those babies have higher rates of immunizations and employed parents than those not enrolled in the program. I think that’s a really big bragging right,” Smith added.

Serving a diverse population

Brooks says those new to Healthy Families are often surprised to find that they qualify for services. The program serves its share of at-risk cases involving poverty, mental health concerns or potential domestic violence situations. However, the program serves a far more diverse population. Ninety-six percent of Arizona Healthy Families participants had no substantiated DCS reports last year.

“We can’t say definitively what our population looks like because everybody needs support in parenting,” Brooks added. “Bottom line, we are a child abuse and neglect prevention program. That’s what we’re about. Yes, there are at-risk families … but some moms just feel they need some support.”

Robbins plans to stick with Healthy Families until her children are 5 years old. At first, she saw her social worker weekly, and now the visits have been reduced to twice monthly. She sees the program as a great chance to check-in with a professional who can offer insights and answer questions.

“Every six months, we go over different goals. They’re all-inclusive goals for the family and for each child and they give us tools to make sure we’re able to fulfill those goals,” Robbins added.

The program can also influence other aspects of a mother’s life. Having already completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology, Robbins plans to finish a master’s degree in the field with the hopes of helping other young moms in the future.

“Initially, I wanted to work with addiction, as a social worker, but now I’ve been inspired and I want to help other moms,” she said.

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This article was reprinted with the permission of the Arizona Lottery.