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Guest column: Doing better for our future starts at birth


We have all heard the adage, "I want 'better' for my children.' With 20 years of evidence-based research, the Family Connects International program has proven to provide that “better” for children, families and communities. 

Family Connects International, a North Carolina-based home visiting and parenting education program, recognizes that all families need support in the weeks and months following birth, regardless of their background, socio-economic status, or where they live. 

On Oct. 4, 2021, the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County, in collaboration with 4C (Carolina Collaborative Community Care), launched Family Connects North Carolina, Southeastern Region, a pilot home-visiting program serving Cumberland, Hoke and Robeson counties. From implementation through March 31, we have had more than 4,600 births, completed more than 1,900 home visits, and made more than 4,200 referrals. 

Referrals for families

Of the more than 4,200 referrals, the top areas were:

  • Household safety/material support: Checking smoke detectors, outlet covers, and carbon monoxide detectors. Ensuring families know what safe sleep practices are to reduce infant mortality.
  • Parent emotional support: Providing information on self-care and connecting families with parenting groups and other support groups.
  • Parent-child relationships: Educates the family on the importance of activities like reading, singing, talking to your infant, and "tummy time." Dispel myths, such as that you can spoil your infant by holding him too much.
  • Parent well-being: Conducts screening to assess maternal anxiety and postpartum depression and ensures the adults in the family have primary care.

Community challenges and solutions

In the program’s first weeks, community challenges were identified and addressed. 

  • Access to Vitamin D drops. These over-the-counter drops are crucial for the development and growth of exclusively breastfed infants. However, the cost is a burden for some families. Our team has worked to help connect families to resources for these drops. 
  • Access to safe sleep environments. With the increase in “couch surfing,” nurses found many infants sleeping in carriers or other makeshift sleeping quarters. Our team has connected families to resources that provide "pack-n-plays" to ensure a safe sleep environment for infants to help reduce infant mortality.

Supporting families saves lives

Based on the family’s comfort level, specially trained registered nurses conduct an in-home or virtual visit. During the visit, nurses assess the newborn; address postpartum health concerns; respond to immediate needs for support and guidance such as breastfeeding and home safety; link families to community services; and help new parents better connect with their infants. The Family Connects program provides between one and three home visits beginning about 3 weeks of age at no cost to families, regardless of income or demographic risk. 

“My nurse gave me the support I needed to get help for my mental health. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts and could barely take care of myself, let alone a new baby,” says a recent new mom. “Through working with my Family Connects nurse, I was able to be seen the next day by my doctor to get on medication, therapy sessions, and support groups. Now, I am happy, well, and able to care for myself and my baby. I was struggling before meeting with my nurse. Having a new baby was challenging in ways I never expected.”

We hate to think where that mother might be today if it weren’t for this program. 

Strengthening community infrastructure

While the short-term impacts are immediately evident, the long-term effects of this program have changed the landscape of maternal, infant and family health in a community, strengthening the community infrastructure.

Twenty years of data from Family Connects International show the connections made during the visit and the post-visit support have lasting results. A few include:

  • Mothers are less likely to experience possible postpartum depression or anxiety, a leading cause of maternal suicide. 
  • A significant reduction in emergency room visits and overnight hospital stays in the first year of the infant’s life. 
  • Reduction of child abuse and maltreatment claims.

Investment for the future while saving money

While this program has a price tag of $500 to $700 per family, there are significant health care savings because of the reduction in emergency room visits. Research shows that for every $1 spent on the program, $3.17 is saved in health care costs. There are also savings to locally funded programs like law enforcement and social services through reduced child abuse claims. 

Partial funding for this pilot program comes from North Carolina’s Smart Start Program and the Cumberland Community Foundation’s Elizabeth A. Hudspeth Endowment. However, the primary funding source is federal funding through the Preschool Development Grant, which will end in 2023. While the evidence of the positive community impacts of Family Connects continues to grow, we must figure out how to sustain the program financially. We owe it to our communities, families and children to find a way to maintain and expand our community’s Family Connects program. 

Call to action 

This program saves lives. This program builds community infrastructure by strengthening families. So, if you like the idea of fewer mothers suffering from postpartum depression, safer homes for families, and fewer children suffering from abuse, join us in contacting our local and state policymakers. Tell them you support the funding of Family Connects in our community.

  • This column is a collaboration among:

    Sandee Gronowski,B board chair of Partnership for Children of Cumberland County.
  • Meredith Gronski, chair of the Family Connects North Carolina, Southeastern Region Community Advisory Committee.
  • Mary Sonnenberg, president of Partnership for Children of Cumberland County.
  • Sharon Moyer, community engagement administrator at Partnership for Children of Cumberland County.
Fayetteville, Partnership for Children, parenting, children