Hands-On Help for Mothers

Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld left a small, little-noticed legacy that could have a big impact. As part of the fiscal 1998 budget he signed into law last month, Mr. Weld set aside $5 million to provide home visits to all first-time teenage mothers in the state.

The idea of home visits isn't new: Massachusetts's plan is loosely based on a program in Hawaii that by all accounts has had great success. Workers for Hawaii Healthy Start assess new mothers during their hospital stays to determine who might be "at risk." With their approval, those women are assigned a home visitor, who for five years provides hands-on help with a range of parenting issues, from health care to discipline to early education.

The purpose of the Hawaii program is to prevent child abuse and neglect, and it seems to work. Fewer than 1 percent of the high-risk parents who take part in the program abuse or neglect their children; among troubled families who don't have home visitors, about 20 percent abuse or neglect their children, studies show.

What's different about the Massachusetts program, called Healthy Families, is its focus on teenage mothers - all teenage mothers, not just those considered at risk. Risk is difficult to determine and is changeable, Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund, which will administer the program, points out. A parent may lose a job months after having a baby, for example, or a mother might find it harder to handle an infant than a toddler.

The decision to focus on teenage mothers is a good one. In half of all child abuse cases, the mother had her first child as a teen. Also, there's a 47 percent decrease in repeat births among teenagers who've had the benefit of a home visitor, studies show.

What legislators in Massachusetts like about Healthy Families is something we all can endorse - its focus on prevention. True, it's a service for young women who already have given birth. But home visitors can help first-time parents avoid potential problems and, in the future, make better choices. Former Governor Weld thought that was worth $5 million out of the state budget. We agree.

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