Susie Deans recalls how her youngest child Christian, now 5, would not talk when he was younger.
“He would grunt and point at things,” Deans said.
He also had problems with anger. Deans remembers when he broke a window but did not seem to register any pain. Through the home visits of Healthy Families Durham, Christian was diagnosed with autism. Now a kindergartener at Y. E. Smith Elementary School, Christian is getting speech therapy, and becoming more social, Deans said.
Her son was diagnosed at age 2, and without the help of Healthy Families and other resources, “I might not have known it,” she said of Christian’s autism.
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Deans’ other children are Sylvia, age 9, and Maria, age 8. When they were younger, when Christian was an infant, Durham Connects helped her with transportation while caring for a newborn and two young children, Deans said.
But Healthy Families Durham, a program of the Center for Child & Family Health, was not the first of a line of services that Durham nonprofit groups offer to help people raise healthy infants and young children. Deans’ first contact was Durham Connects, which offers free home visits to all parents of newborns in Durham County, regardless of income level. Durham Connects makes home visits for children between the ages of 2 and 12 weeks, after which Healthy Families Durham makes monthly home visits up to age 3.
Deans found out about Durham Connects through a nurse assigned to the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which serves a 120-block neighborhood east of downtown. Durham Connects is one of many organizations that partners with the Children’s Initiative’s cradle-to-graduation approach to fighting poverty and improving the neighborhood.
Parents also can find out about Durham connects from their doctor, a birth class, or a hospital tour. Using birth and contact information from hospital records, nurses with Durham Connects visit new mothers in the hospital to talk about services. Durham Connects also tries to contact new mothers who may not get visited in the hospital.
Having a wide impact
Durham Connects is a nonprofit program of the Center for Child & Family Health, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, Durham County Department of Social Services, and the Durham County Health Department.
Since it began in August 2008, Durham Connects has served more than 20,000 moms, said Kenneth Dodge, Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Dodge also is the founder of Durham Connects.
Durham Connects goes back to 2001, when the Duke Endowment asked about funding a project that would have impact on a large population, Dodge said. “Many good intentioned efforts had reached only very small numbers of families,” but the Duke Endowment challenge “inspired us to ask the question, can we have a population impact” and “move the needle” to help children have a healthy start in life.
The endowment was willing to invest for a long period of time, Dodge said. After about six years of research “we realized that to have a population impact we wanted to reach every family giving birth ... in the Durham community,” he said.
“We did a lot of research and we learned there was not going to be a single magic bullet that would help all families,” Dodge said. Some families would need help with health care, others with finances, others with substance abuse, he said. Durham Connects is the first step in matching families with different services. Each nurse who visits families has access to a database of more thank 400 organizations that help families with newborns, Dodge said.
Community support crucial
Programs like Durham Connects are in line with state policy. North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that infant mortality rates had decreased slightly in 2016, from 884 in 2015 to 873 in 2015. In March 2016, the department launched a five-year plan to ensure greater health for mothers and to lower infant mortality. That 12-point plan’s major goals are improving health care for men and women, strengthening families and communities and addressing social and economic inequities.
Durham had 27 infant deaths in 2016, a slight increase from 25 in 2015, according to state statistics.
Nurses with Durham Connects spend about two hours with the mother and newborn, said Lyn Steuart, a nurse who works with the program. With two-hour visits, “we have time for them to feel relaxed and comfortable,” Steuart said.
During the visits, nurses weigh the baby, take vital signs and coach the moms in adjusting to a newborn. The main issues many new moms discuss are fatigue and lack of sleep, Steuart said. Many need help in getting their babies to go to sleep, and others need help and support with breast feeding, she said.
Steuart has been with Durham Connects for four years, and previously conducted postpartum family visits with the Women’s Birth & Wellness Center of Chapel Hill. The mothers appreciate the advice they get, Steuart said. “I think every mom benefits from learning everything is going well,” she said. They also appreciate the “tips and tools-in-your-toolbox kind of things” they get from the nurses, Steuart said.
Many new moms say they need help with post-partum depression, said Margot Stern, who has been a nurse with the program for three years. “My goal is to set these families up so they can be successful as parents,” Stern said. “I consider it a real gift that I have this job. It’s a great job.”
“The most frequent response we hear is they feel reassured that they’re not alone, that there is a community out there to help them, that they can draw on it…,” Dodge said.
Deans continues to get home visits from the East Durham Children’s Initiative’s parent advocate program. Carla Fryling, Deans’ parent advocate, does monthly visits with families, helping with kindergarten readiness, and referring families to other available services. Deans’ children are enrolled in several Children’s Initiative programs, and she often volunteers at the center. “Suzie is one of our rock star moms,” Fryling said.
Deans plans to have her children in a program at the center as long as she lives in Durham. “They push you in the right direction,” she said of the East Durham Children’s Initiative. “I feel like they’re family,” Deans said. And the people who do home visits, “they’re like moms to me.”