As home visitors in Clarksburg, my team and I have front-row seats to America’s opioid crisis. Those seats are on the floor. In a town where the rate of opioid overdose deaths is 41 per 100,000 — more than three times the national rate — we learn not to sit on a client’s couch, because you never know what’s lurking in the cushions.
We are part of Parents as Teachers, a program that supports parents’ ability to nurture children’s early development, learning and health by meeting families quite literally where they are — in their homes — and providing them supports to help them be the best parents they can be. We are one of 18 home visiting models around the country that are evidence-based and, therefore, eligible for funding through the federal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.
Some home-visiting programs work with special populations, such as teenage mothers or families living in poverty. Others emphasize prenatal care. Here in Clarksburg, we de facto specialize in opioids.
On Sept. 30, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program expired. The House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing it but with significant changes that will make it harder to make sure less wealthy states, like West Virginia, can get the funding at all. The Senate has yet to act.
I am, frankly, scared to see what happens to Clarksburg if we don’t get the home-visiting program reauthorized, the right way, and soon.
When I grew up here, Clarksburg was the kind of town where no one locked their front doors. Today, nearly three-quarters of the babies born in the local hospital are addicted when they take their first breath. Many of the moms we work with we meet at a homeless shelter, where they have wound up after losing everything to the addiction.
That was what happened to one mother who had just given birth to a fourth child but had lost custody of her three older children. By then, the one-time homecoming queen also had an extreme change to her appearance and lost her home. She had been through rehabilitation programs, but the addiction was still winning — until she got pregnant.
At that point, she met her home visitor. Together they worked on positive parenting; on the skills she needed to help her baby grow into a healthy, successful child. And they worked on so much more — on the intangible but crucial understanding that she was good enough to be a mother, that her baby loved her and needed her, period.
By the time the baby was nine months old, she had made it out of the shelter and into her own home. She had stayed clean, but it wasn’t easy.
She suddenly and unexpectedly lost her brother, and she called her home visitor. We came and we sat there, because her other choice was to turn to drugs.
Today, this woman is one of the best mothers I have ever met, and her family is reunited. The mom credits her home visitor for the transformation: She knew we were coming every week. She said she had to make it through, to stay strong, because she didn’t want to let us down.
That is the thing about home visiting. It has protocols and best practices, proven methods that work and evidence to back it up. But it doesn’t have limits. It is about trust. It is about a relationship. It is about giving someone a person, a single person, they know believes in them.
Without our home visiting funding I couldn’t pay anyone to go into our shelter, to help a parent understand that this child still thinks the world of you, even as you are struggling, that you are still this child’s best and most important teacher. Without this funding, we couldn’t be there when someone is jonesing at three in the morning and they text us because they need us, and that text is always, always answered.
Without that funding we would not be there to do what is necessary — and believe me, it is necessary, because our town is falling apart. These people need help. They need a chance. They deserve a chance. They are more than worthy of our help.