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Giving kids a chance

Gov. Gina Raimondo signs into law a bill designed to give parents of infants the support they need.

By Joe Baker

NEWPORT - During the first two years of life, a child is learning every waking minute of every day, and that forms the basis of a child's growth into adulthood.

In 2010, Congress enacted the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program in an effort to reach parents with infants or mothers-to-be with the necessary support programs to allow them to give their children the best chance at succeeding in life. While the Rhode Island Department of Health has enacted regulations putting that program in place, it never had the backing of state legislation.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gina Raimondo journeyed to Newport for a ceremonial signing of legislation (S2096 and H7220), sponsored by Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, that enshrines the program into law and formalizes coordination for it between three state departments.

“The first experiences of a child's life set the foundation for development that impacts them throughout their lives,” Paiva Weed said during the event held at the East Bay Community Action Program's Head Start building. “Abundant evidence tells us that the quality of a child's earliest experiences correlates with success in schooling and in life.”

“This is an expression of our priorities,” Raimondo said after the event. “It addresses the importance and urgency of it for us.”

During her remarks before the ceremonial signing, Raimondo related having her first child. Although she had a good job, a supportive husband and plenty of family support, coming home with the baby was a stressful event.

“No one tells you what you have to do,” the governor said. “And even with every possible advantage, it was hard. It's scary.”

Parents facing much more stressful home lives need as much help as they can get, not only to shepherd them through their new lifestyle of child rearing, but also to make sure the child is given every chance to succeed in life. It is these types of programs that can help children break the cycle of poverty, said Seena Franklin, vice president for family development at East Bay Community Action Program.

“Absolutely it works. It really does,” Franklin said. “We have a pretty good track record.”

Twice a month, the program brings together a team charged with finding eligible families and discussing what supports they might need. Referrals come from the mother herself, neighbors, the hospital or other social agencies, Franklin said. If the referral is not directly from the mother, the agency will call her and let her know counselors can come talk to her about support networks or programs that can help her, Franklin said. On a site visit, a counselor will spend several hours talking to the parents, trying to assess what they might need to help them and their child, she said.


Gov. Gina Raimondo is flanked on Tuesday by Rhode Island Kids Count Executive Director Elizabeth Burke Bryant, left, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, as she signs family home care legislation.

Dave Hansen | Staff photographer Staff writer

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“We look at the family's needs and strengths,” Franklin said. “Some of them are pretty vulnerable folks who just need a little help.”

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said getting to a child in the first few years is crucial to ensuring he or she has the best chance of becoming a functional and useful member of society.

“It's the whole child you need to think about. It's really about getting children off to a great start,” Bryant said. “If they don't get what they need in the earlier years, it's just so much harder to get through what they need in the later years.”

Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, D-Warwick, chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, recalled a student he had 40 years ago when he taught in the alternative learning program of the Pawtucket School Department. The 12-year-old boy was emaciated, wore thick glasses and had some developmental disabilities. He subsequently learned that the boy had been malnourished since birth and it contributed to his “failure to thrive,” said McNamara, who sponsored the House version of the legislation.

“This is totally unacceptable,” McNamara said. “We can intervene at that early level. This (program) is the first level of interest in addressing those disparities.”

The governor, Burke Bryant and McNamara all credited Paiva Weed with leading the charge on the legislation. It was one of only four bills Paiva Weed sponsored as Senate president in the 2016 legislative session.

“You were like a dog on a bone,” Burke Bryant said to her.

The legislation requires that the Department of Health coordinate its efforts with the departments of Children, Youth and Families and Human Services. It also requires the health department to submit an annual report that includes: the number of families served by the evidence-based programs; the demographic data of families served; the efforts used for cross-departmental cooperation; and documentation of outcomes of prenatal, maternal, infant and child health, child maltreatment, family economic security, child development and school readiness outreach efforts.

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