A home visitation program proven to support new parents and their infants will launch this September at St. David’s Hospital South Austin Medical Center, with plans to expand it across Central Texas.
The program, called Texas Family Connects, will serve about 2,000 families in its first year and is a collaboration between United Way for Greater Austin and Austin Public Health, with funding from St. David’s Foundation childhood resilience efforts and a federal grant. In Durham, North Carolina, where the program originated, it proved to reduce emergency care by 59 percent in the first six months of an infant’s life and by 50 percent within the first year, according to a 2013 study. Researchers also found lower rates of clinical anxiety in mothers and, in general, safer, more child-friendly home environments.
“Almost everyone needs help at some point when you’re bringing home a newborn,” said Kim McPherson, senior program officer for St. David’s Foundation, adding that parents can struggle with nursing, postpartum depression, and the general anxiety a new baby brings. But the program isn’t just about helping new mothers cope, says McPherson. It’s also about helping them stay on top of follow-up medical visits and accessing other services and agencies if they need them.
McPherson says there are important elements of the program that make it work, according to the research. First, she said, the service is available to every family, not just those determined to be low-income. “A zip code or income level aren’t an accurate proxy for who needs help,” said McPherson. “All of us need this help.” The funding from St. David’s Foundation and the federal grant ensure the service will be free to all families.
Another element that makes the program effective is the timing of the visit, which takes place three weeks after the infant has left the hospital. “That’s intentional,” said McPherson, “because even if a family does get help, that’s usually when that help goes away and when the reality of a newborn starts to sink in.” During the three-hour visit, a nurse assesses the infant’s and mother’s health, answers questions, makes sure follow-up visits are scheduled, and shares resources for the families that need them.
“When the nurse is in the home with the family they are able to provide care in the moment,” said Shalyn Bravens, United Way’s director of Family Connects, “and they can help create a pln for accessing care, if needed.”
The program will be administered by the city’s Austin Public Health department, which will hire and schedule five seasoned nurses. “This is a really unique nurse that needs to be a good fit,” said Bravens, adding that nurses should be comfortable in what could be a chaotic home setting, skilled at infant and maternal health assessments, and speak other languages besides English.
At the same time, the program can help United Way track what services new parents and infants do need and how much. “I don’t even know everything we’re going to find out from families,” said Bravens, “and collecting that data is going to be one of the most exciting things for the community.”
PHOTO: A mother and baby, clients of one of St. David’s Foundation’s resilience programs.
NOTE: This story was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on July 22, 2018.