Room for improvement: Study gives Alaska families program so-so grade

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) A 10-year-old program to fund at-home help for stressed-out new parents hasn't made much of a difference, a study has found.

To address the study findings, the Healthy Families Alaska program has been revamped, state officials said.

''The results may not have been glowing, but we learned so much from the study,'' said Linda Borghols, who manages the Healthy Families program for the state Department of Health and Social Services. ''We were able to look at it and say, where do we need to go from here.''

The program approach is to get involved with potentially troubled families early on, through private agencies, tribal workers and public health nurses.

How to do this seems simple: Interview new parents and parents-to-be. Identify those who are especially stressed, based on such factors as violence in the home, substance abuse, or the parents' own troubled childhoods. Send a worker to visit these parents regularly. Give them information about how babies and children develop. Help them see the good in their children and themselves. Tell them where to get additional help, such as drug treatment.

But family problems often are multilayered and may go back generations.

''It wasn't quite as easy as we thought it was when we first started,'' said Claudia Shanley, program manager of the state's early intervention unit. ''If you are working with a mom who is depressed, it's not as simple as taking a medication.''

The program began in 1994 as a response to the state's high rate of child abuse and neglect. It now operates in Anchorage, Kenai, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Matanuska-Susitna area.

Last year, 373 families were enrolled statewide. The program budget this year is nearly $2 million, all in federal funds. In earlier years, the Legislature contributed state dollars.

The five-year study was conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The Legislature sought it to determine whether the program helped families function better, kept children healthier and prevented abuse and neglect.

The study compared 162 families in the Healthy Families program with 163 similar families who were put into a control group and didn't receive the home visits.

Researchers found that mothers in the program had less stress, more empathy toward their children and greater knowledge of child development than those in the control group. Homes of participating families were less likely to be poor learning environments.

But on most other measures, there was little or no difference.

During the first two years of a child's life, the state confirmed child abuse or neglect in 16 percent of the families who participated, compared to 17 percent of the families who did not get help through Healthy Families.

Nine percent of children in both groups were hospitalized for conditions that would not have required hospitalization if the children had had adequate primary health care. About three-quarters of the children in both groups had a specific primary-care provider. But only about a quarter were fully immunized by age 2, compared with the program standard of 90 percent.

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