Mary Hernandez peers anxiously about as her car pulls up in
front of Juanika Hickman's duplex in the crime-ridden east end of
The week before, Ms. Hernandez arrived to find the street
clogged with police cars. Juanika's mom, a crack addict, had been
stabbed during a fight on the sidewalk, trying to protect Juanika.
Throughout the ruckus, Juanika's six-month-old baby, Travon, was
left alone inside the house. "What happens next time there's a
confrontation?" Hernandez asks before stepping out of her car to
greet Juanika. "I don't want the baby in danger."
Hernandez is now one of a handful of people working to keep
Juanika's roly-poly baby, nicknamed "fat man," safe. As a home
visitor, she is part of a pioneer program in Iowa that is gaining
attention nationwide as an effective means of preventing child
In 1995 alone, more than 3.1 million children were reported
abused and neglected, according to the Chicago-based National
Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
Many experts believe home visitation offers a common-sense and
compelling solution: Send trained adults on regular visits to
support at-risk mothers and fathers in coping with the difficulties
of parenthood and a range of life crises, and thus help keep
parents from mistreating their children. If the visitors see signs
of abuse, they must notify child welfare officials.
One of the most effective and far-reaching home-visitation
initiatives is the Healthy Families America program, started in
1992 by the NCPCA. The widespread anecdotal evidence of its success
has led a growing number of US communities to experiment with the
approach. In the past two years, the number of states participating
in the program has grown from 19 to 30, while program sites across
the country have mushroomed from 31 to 186.
Home visitation has been endorsed as the most critical element
in a comprehensive approach to prevention by the US Advisory Board
on Child Abuse and Neglect.
But experts caution that the quality of home-visitation programs
is not uniform. "There is tremendous variation," says David Olds, a
University of Colorado professor who has studied the programs.
The best results tend to be achieved by programs that use highly
trained professionals such as nurses, provide frequent visits
starting before birth to promote healthy pregnancies, and help
parents not only with child-rearing but also schooling, housing,
and economic self-sufficiency, says Prof. …