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Child Watch® Column: "Keeping Children Out of the Pipeline to Prison"

Release Date: September 11, 2009

Marian Wright Edelman

Hundreds of thousands of our nation's children are being funneled down life paths that lead to arrest, conviction, incarceration and even death. The urgent challenge for each of us and for our nation is to prevent this waste of our children's lives and of our nation's capabilities and future. The Children's Defense Fund's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crusade is dedicated to dismantling this pipeline to prison. We believe it's never too late to save a child but that it's also critical to pay attention to proven models that keep children from entering the pipeline in the first place. This is especially true of effective programs that give the youngest children and their families support from birth to promote physical, social and emotional development, help prevent child abuse and neglect, prepare them to be ready for school and empower children to avoid the pipeline to prison and follow positive paths.

In exploring evidence-based best practices, the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) and other quality home visiting programs such as Healthy Families America, Parents as Teachers and the Parent Child Home Program stand out. President Obama singled out the success of quality home visitation and included $8.6 billion over ten years in his budget to expand effective programs and those that show promise. NFP helps to change the lives of vulnerable first-time mothers and their babies through ongoing home visits from registered nurses. The NFP model has been tested for over 30 years and in 1996 was formally launched to bring registered nurses into the homes of as many first-time low-income mothers as possible. 

Each mother is partnered with a registered nurse early in her pregnancy and receives ongoing nurse home visits through her child's second birthday. The nurse provides the mother preventive health care, health and development education for both mother and child, and life coaching for mother and family. The program currently serves 17,600 families in 28 states and has worked with more than 98,000 families since 1996. This community health program has yielded proven results including long-term improvements in family health, education and economic self-sufficiency. The NFP helps children avoid the pipeline to prison by reducing long-term rates of child abuse and neglect, child arrest, juvenile adjudication, and mother arrests and convictions.

Quality Early Head Start is another sound program model that often incorporates home visits in its support for infants and toddlers and their families. The Bright Beginnings Program in Washington, D.C., is a comprehensive program serving homeless preschool children and families. It is an Early Head Start and Head Start program serving about 186 children annually who live with their families in crisis shelters or transitional housing. Bright Beginnings offers an accredited early childhood program, health screenings and on-site therapeutic services, job training in early childhood for parents, transition services when children enter kindergarten, and night-time care services for children whose parents work non-traditional hours. The Early Head Start Program for infants and toddlers should be adapted to serve more vulnerable families, but unfortunately this successful model currently serves only three percent of eligible children.

There are also a number of effective family support programs that help children by helping their parents. AVANCE, a parenting and adult literacy program in Texas, New Mexico and California, serves children younger than four years old and their parents by offering early childhood education, parenting education classes, community resource awareness, home visits and adult education. It also provides transportation and other support services to help families participate on a consistent basis. AVANCE is focused primarily on low-income Hispanic families and offers a culturally sensitive, bilingual program. It has demonstrated positive results such as improvements in the home environment, more positive interactions between the child and mother, and an increased sense of parental efficacy. AVANCE recently received a $2.55 million grant from the Kresge Foundation to continue expanding its program.

The Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker Program (MIHOW) operates in six southern and border states. This is another family support program that has improved families' access to affordable medical care and well baby medical services that help with problems related to alcoholism, drug abuse or depression. It trains and employs local women to mentor other women to promote the development of healthy children. The goal is to stimulate low-cost parent-to-parent interventions that improve health and child development for low-income families. The success of this program is demonstrated by MIHOW mothers and children scoring significantly better than comparison groups on measures that assess positive child development.

All of these models prove that working with the youngest at-risk children and their families at the beginning of their lives is cost-effective and yields valuable results that enable children to flourish. Preventing children from entering the cradle to prison pipeline as early as possible is the best opportunity to get and keep them on the right path to successful adulthood.


Marian Wright Edelman, whose new book is The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org/.


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