Opinion-Editorial by the Rev. Darrell L. Armstrong
This past Sunday, June 11th, was International Children’s Day (ICD) in the United States and in many countries around the world. First proclaimed in 1925 in Geneva during the World Conference on Child Welfare, and officially established by U.N. resolution in 1954, International Children’s Day, sometimes referenced as Universal Children’s Day, is celebrated on various days and months throughout the global community. Some countries recognize it on June 1st. Others recognize it in August, and still others recognize in November. In the United States, the practice dates back to 1856 when the Rev. Dr. Charles Leonard held a special service for children at his church Universalist Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The global variations of the day notwithstanding, in the United States, the day follows a two-month season in which America focuses on it’s most vulnerable population: (1)…April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and May is Foster Care Awareness Month.
This trilogy of child-focused, awareness moments, were created to keep the welfare and wellbeing of children at the forefront of American lawmakers and global decision-makers. According to the U.N.’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), these special child focused days are designed to promote a global focus to “advocate for and champion the rights of children.” And I like to append, to reduce and ultimately eliminate violence against women, children, and families. America is to be commended for doing just this, safeguarding the future of our children by passing the MIECHV (Maternal-Infant, Early- Childhood, Home Visiting) Act in 2010 and twice reauthorizing it in 2017, and 2022. Not since President Lyndon Baine Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” has the United States Congress made such comprehensive legislative investments into the primary care and concern of children, as it has done with the MIECHV legislation. Not only do I urge Congress to keep expanding MIECHV-funded programming, but I also urge Congress to reauthorize CAPTA, the Child Abuse and Prevention Training Act, both are primary investments into not just American children, but into their “homes,” and into their communities.
The “H” in MIECHV stands for “Home”-visiting. And I firmly believe that any effective child and family focused legislation must focus on enhancing and strengthening the “home”-environment of children and their families, as well as the community in which that “home” sits. Thus “home-visiting” as a practice model is considered one of Congress’ most effective domestic policies legislated in the last 60-years! Early/Head Start (EHS), Healthy Families America (HFA), Nurse Family Partnerships (NFP), and Parents As Teachers (PAT) are examples of the dozens of MIECHV programs funded by HRSA (Resources Services Administration) to do “home” visits in millions of American homes.
The singular focus of MIECHV is to reduce negative outcomes for children, pregnant women with children, and parents/caregivers of young children, by providing psycho- education and training to pregnant women, birthing parents/families, and caretakers of young children in their ‘homes” before they get into crisis. Some call these negative outcomes, “ACES” (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and many social scientists and practitioners believe that they can be mitigated, reduced, and even eliminated, by addressing risk factors (threats) even before children are born. And the best way of addressing those caregivers is to go to them, and stop demanding that they come-to the persons and places where the knowledge and information is sourced.
This simple notion undergirds the science of “home”-visiting, namely going to the target population of people, instead of having them come to you. The idea that knowledge, instruction and psycho-education can be supplied to parents in their “home”- environment where children will spend their formative moments is not novel. Parents are children’s first-teachers, and they must be better equipped with skills, tools, and resources needed to successfully negotiate and navigate the vicissitudes of parenting, especially parenting infants, toddlers, and young children.
After all, it is still true that babies don’t come with operation manuals.
Although the science of “home”-visiting is clear, the practice and implementation of government-funded “home”-visiting has often been murky and unclear. In the 1960s and 1970s, great fear permeated certain American “homes” when they tried to qualify for government benefits and subsidies, and were told by local officials and authorities that their children could be removed and their “homes” placed under state supervision and surveillance based on the subjective opinions of government workers who entered their “homes” with pre-judgments and implicit biases. Today, that fear is still resident, especially in “homes” which reside in certain under resourced communities, and particularly those with high immigrant populations. They ask the question, “if I let this person into my “home,” and they deem me an ‘unfit,’ will they take my child away or deport me and members of my family?”
Thus, the seminal lesson government policy-makers should have learned from those early days of “home”-visiting is that WHO VISITS MATTERS, and why they are visiting matters; and how they visit, matters. If they are visiting my “home” to surveil and monitor me, then I will not let them enter. But, if they are visiting my “home” to aid, equip, and assist me, then I will let them enter. If civic-aid workers cannot even get past the proverbial front-door, then their services are rendered null and void.
Some fiscally and socially conservative Americans will(might) ask, “why should the American government be investing public monies and passing legislation and policies that effect American families…in their ‘homes;’ isn’t the “home” the private domain of our citizens? And isn’t what happens in the privacy of one’s ‘home’ confidential business?” My short answer to each of these questions is: “either invest now, or invest later!” American social policy making is littered with examples and trillions of dollars being invested later, rather then upfront, with little effect and poor results. The War on Drugs and the 1996 Crime Prevention Act, are two examples of legislation that reacted to the breakdown in American “homes.” “Lock-them up” and “three-strikes and you’re out” were rallying cries that put band- aids on deep wounds and ultimately led to America holding the dubious distinction of being the most incarcerated society in the known industrial world.
Let’s get back to simple, but proven policies and practices. Making available a multitude of culturally competent, strengths-minded, sensitive-spirited “home”-visitors who are ready to be invited into American “homes,” is good public policy. As a clergyperson with
30+ years of going into “homes” in South Central Los Angeles, East Palo Alto, CA and Trenton, NJ and as the pastor for the last twenty-three years of a predominantly African descended, Black Baptist, urban congregation, I know firsthand the merits of “home”- visiting when it is done sensitively and correctly.
I send Diaconate leaders into “homes” to serve Holy Communion on a monthly basis. I send Missionaries and Parish Nurses into “homes” to serve our home-bound, elderly populations. And I am most effective as a Pastor, when I can go into “homes” to do my most basic, elemental, and fundamental pastoral duty, namely taking GOD’s love to the people, and not just preaching about it from the pulpit.
And I even started a promising-practice called Congregational “Home” Visiting (CHV) which sends clergy and trained congregational representatives into the “homes” of birthing parents and caregivers of young children with the simple proposition, that before we bless, baptize, or dedicate your child back to GOD, let’s do seven sessions of psycho-education and early childhood development training about the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Like pre-marital counseling before I marry couples, I now do and encourage pre-Child-Centered-Ritual counseling and training before I bless a baby.
Our congregation, and our HOPE Partners from Tuft Medical Center, Dr. Bob Sege and Dr. Allison Stephens, are proud to advance this model of CHV through a recent a $100K planning grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through their Systems for Action division. Other partners like Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Melissa Merrick Clergy, from Prevent Child Abuse America, Teresa Rafael from the Children’s Trust Fund Alliance, Rebecca Roebuck from the National Child Abuse Coalition, and Phyllis Niolon from the CDC&P, are among a cadre of my professional colleagues who value and support the notion of clergy of all faiths, and their congregations, taking a greater role in the early lives of children.
Since clergy are the only professionals who bless and dedicate children, perform other child value rituals like brit milahs or simchat bats, they have a great opportunity to engage parents and caregivers about the GOD-ordained value of their children. And if we love and value our children to life, we won’t beat them to death!
“Home”-visiting is a core-tenant of my Judeo-Christian faith and Jesus is my best example of a “home”- visitor: He came from heaven into our “homes” here on earth; He visited the “home” of one of His chief apostles, Peter’s mother-in-law, and He frequently went into the plagued-places and dusty-dwellings of some of the most marginalized communities of His day.
During this day, month and season of celebrating our children, let’s remember to keep elevating them and their caregivers by “going-to” them and stop demanding that they come to us. By doing so, we will continue creating a “culture of health,” and ensuring that all children have a happy, safe, stable, and nurturing childhood. After all, “HOME” is where the heart is!
The Rev. Darrell Armstrong is a global child and family advocate who founded FAAITH (Faithleaders Against Abuse in the Home), a global NGO working in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to end violence against children and women. He is the Pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, NJ and the former Director of the NJ Division of Child Abuse Prevention (2006-2009). And he is President-Elect of APSAC (American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children).