By Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ President/CEO
It's official! Last week, Governor Murphy signed the universal home visiting bill (S690/A4530) into law, guaranteeing new parents at least one free home visit from a nurse within two weeks of their child’s birth, with the option of receiving two more within the next three months. This is thanks to new legislation sponsored by Senators Ruiz and Vitale, and Assemblymembers Armato, Huttle and Speight.
I wish you could have been at the bill signing. There were so many compelling stories from parents, legislators and others in attendance, including a parent advocate from ACNJ’s Parent Leadership Council. The universal home visiting law brings together so many systems that serve families with young children. For me, the most exciting result was the connection between early care and child protection. The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) will be responsible for implementing the law, as it already oversees an existing home visitation program that serves higher-risk families. As DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer noted,“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. The universality ensures that all families have equal access to the same critical resources and supports, without stigma, that will enhance the health and well-being of the entire family."
Creating an infrastructure for a universal home visiting system was one of the key goals in ACNJ’s 2020 Unlocking Potential prenatal-to-three plan, but home visiting has actually been a part of our infant-toddler agenda since we began focusing on this work in 2012. Recognizing that the existing voluntary statewide system of evidence-based home visiting reaches just two percent of families that could benefit from these services, ACNJ, along with our home visiting partners, began strategizing on how to expand services to reach more families.
Over this past year, we worked with Senator Ruiz and her staff to strengthen the bill.This included facilitating a meeting with Ruiz and Senator Steiner Hayward from Oregon, a state that passed the first statewide home visiting law, to learn how they designed, funded and advocated for their legislation. ACNJ and several of our partners testified before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee in March 2021. In addition, several of our partners submitted written testimony, including the NJ Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the NJ Association for Obstetrics and Gynecology and the NJ Hospital Association.
Key recommendations that were incorporated in the final legislation included:
- the home visitor should be a specially trained nurse,
- the program should offer more than one visit,
- the model utilized should be based on criteria established by the US Department of Health and Human Services for an evidence-based early childhood home visiting service delivery model that has been rigorously researched
The passage of this legislation happened much faster than any of us had anticipated and we are so excited for what’s to come. I want to acknowledge the work of ACNJ policy analyst Diane Dellanno in making this possible. In her earlier role at Prevent Child Abuse NJ, Diane actually helped to bring the first home visiting program to the Garden State. Her expertise and her strong relationships with the home visiting community were instrumental in removing barriers and securing support for this legislation. Her advocacy also included working with the existing home visiting programs to ensure they received additional funding in the FY 2022 state budget, so that we can have a true continuum of home visiting services for families. It’s important to note that this new program is not a replacement for these existing programs that provide more visits over a longer period and are targeted to higher-risk families but rather a complement to these programs, providing the missing link that can help identify what all families of newborns need and want from local resources and provide referrals to a variety of supports, including these more intensive home visiting programs.
There is a lot ahead to do as the state now plans for implementation but I felt it was important to pause for a moment to reflect on this success for our youngest children and their families. Thank you to our state leaders, our home visiting partners and advocates for your support in making this possible.