published Monday, April 7th, 2014

Home visitation funds stay in Tennessee budget

NASHVILLE — Highly praised Tennessee programs that send help into the homes of families with young children have faced funding cuts, but proponents heard two promising developments last week.

Congress renewed federal funding for home visiting programs, and the release of Gov. Bill Haslam's revised budget maintained some state funding as well.

Some advocates had feared an end to all state funding.

"We all were worried," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. "Home visitation is an incredibly important program to help families with young children."

Home visiting often helps first-time parents and teen mothers learn parenting skills, get health screenings and learn about social services for as long as the first five years of a child's life.

Tennessee receives about $10 million each year from the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, which pays for programs in every state.

Some of that goes toward home visits and some to the Welcome Baby effort, in which the state Department of Health sends packets by mail to all families with newborns -- about 79,000 each year.

Select families receive follow-up calls from a nurse, and some are offered free home visits.

"The previous funding has helped many families on their journeys to better health, providing access to information and services that otherwise might not have been available," Health Department spokesman Woody McMillin wrote in an email.

Although some state funding remains, the amount has been trimmed by about one-fourth compared to past years for Healthy Start, available in 20 counties, and the similar Child Health and Development program in 22 counties.

McMillin said cuts could eliminate services to some counties.

Advocates last month told The Tennessean that home visiting pays off in the long run for the state by reducing child abuse and health problems that ultimately cost the state more money.

"It's important for helping parents know the kind of stimulation and interaction that's important in building their children's brains," O'Neal said.

Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 and on Twitter @tgonzalez.

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