Connecting state and local government leaders
The visits, offered in Oregon and now New Jersey, include a health and wellness check for both the baby and the parents, an effort to improve maternal mortality rates and boost family well-being.
New parents in New Jersey can receive a free home visit from a registered nurse within two weeks of their child’s birth under a bill signed into law recently by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The legislation, approved unanimously by both chambers of the state legislature, provides families with at least one free visit, with the option of two additional in-home consultations within three months. Home visits will include a weight and health check for the baby and physical and mental health checks for parents, along with breastfeeding support and reproductive planning. Both biological and adoptive parents are eligible for the voluntary program, as are families who experience stillbirth.
“Home visiting programs have tremendous benefits for mothers, infants, and families,” Murphy said in a statement. “Research has shown that these programs not only decrease infant and maternal mortality, but also improve mental health, increase child educational attainment, decrease abuse and neglect, and strengthen family success and economic growth.”
The law is part of a larger push by state officials to address New Jersey’s high rate of maternal mortality, which includes wide disparities in health outcomes among racial lines. For example, Black infants are more than three times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants, and Black mothers are more than seven times more likely than white mothers to die from maternity-related complications, according to data from the Nurture NJ Maternal and Infant Health Strategic Plan, an initiative spearheaded by Tammy Murphy, the governor’s wife.
The home-visit bill was inspired by the personal experience of Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat from Essex who worked with a lactation consultant in her home after the birth of her daughter.
“The time spent with her changed my whole outlook. She answered my questions and gave me the reassurance I needed,” Ruiz, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement. “I realized if we could provide a service like this early to new mothers and parents they would have additional support to rely on during what is one of the most challenging periods of parenthood.”
In addition to conducting on-site health and wellness assessments, the registered nurse can refer the families to community partners for other needs, including food insecurity and child care planning. Under the law, health insurers are required to cover those services.
Supporting Parents in First Weeks
The program, funded via a $2.75 million appropriation, will be overseen by the state Department of Children and Families, which administers a similar initiative for some new mothers using nurses contracted via a third-party employer. Under the new law, visits for families who opt in to the program will be arranged by the department, which will be notified of the baby’s birth by the hospital where he or she was born.
The goal, advocates said, is to give all new parents the support they need during their first few weeks with their baby, which can be a difficult and overwhelming time.
“As any parent will tell you, the first few days, weeks and months of becoming a parent can be overwhelming and scary. Children don't come with an instruction manual,” Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the department, said in a statement. “In the field of child welfare, we know that young children—particularly birth until five—are at the highest risk of becoming victims of child abuse and neglect, with infants being the most vulnerable. Through the provision of universal home visiting, we can offer education and support, identify potential challenges early and refer out to additional services if needed.”
New Jersey’s law gives the state 18 months to work out the details of program implementation, which will be the second universal home visit initiative in the country. Oregon launched a similar program—Family Connects Oregon—in February 2020, providing one to three in-home nurse visits to families that choose to participate. Nurses with the program are trained to answer questions and “connect families with the support they need,” according to the website.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.