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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC), which leads the statewide Smart Start network, and Family Connects International (FCI) recently announced new community programs that will serve nearly 10,000 North Carolina families over three years.

Pilots — led by the Children’s Council of Watauga County, the Smart Start Partnership for Children and the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County — will provide families of newborns in eight North Carolina communities access to comprehensive support to ensure children receive the care and nurturing they need to thrive.

“This collaboration with Family Connects reflects the Smart Start network’s connection to local communities across the state, as well as our commitment to serve each child in every community,” said NCPC President Amy Cubbage. “These home visiting pilots are the next important step toward an equitable statewide system of home visiting and parenting education, ensuring all families have access to needed services and supports.”

Family Connects is an evidence-based universal nurse home visiting program for families with newborns. The program provides between one and three home visits beginning at about three weeks of age, regardless of income or demographic risk. Smart Start is a network of 75 early childhood partnerships that bring together all the people involved in a young child’s life — families, teachers, doctors, caregivers, social workers, and many others — to ensure every child has all they need for healthy growth and development.

Watauga Children’s Council Executive Director Elisha Childers said being able to welcome a new baby and surround his or her family with support and resources is very special. She added that the Watauga Children’s Council is thrilled to be able to offer Family Connects to families throughout the region with this funding.

“The Watauga County community came together to launch Family Connects in 2019, and were poised to start offering home visits in March of 2020 when COVID-19 slowed us down. We were able to shift gears, and are currently serving Watauga County families with virtual visits and will now be able to offer this program to children born in our neighboring counties as well.”

Partners of the Children’s Council of Watauga County include Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, AppHealthCare, Blue Ridge Pediatrics and Harmony Women’s Center. These agencies are serving parents and newborns in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties.

“It makes perfect sense to expand partnerships to offer this program to new babies and parents in all of these communities,” Childers said.

Childers added that she remembered being a new mom herself.

“Even with a degree in child development, I had questions when I had a real, live baby,” Childers said. “Nothing about parenting is by the books, and we all need support.”

Jeff Quinn, FCI’s national director of programs, said he is excited about the new partnership.

“Working with NCPC and their Smart Start local partnerships gives Family Connects the ability to reach not just more families, but specifically families in rural areas of North Carolina, and that’s an important gap to fill,” Quinn said in a statement.

These new pilots will combine Family Connects’ universal home visiting model with the community assets and local services coordinated by the Smart Start network and the statewide coordinated care referral network powered by the NCCARE360 digital platform. Services will be provided in Watauga, Ashe, Avery, Henderson, Polk, Cumberland, Hoke and Robeson counties. Reaching children and families in rural communities is a priority in these pilots, as rural areas tend to have a greater unmet need in home visiting services.

Participating families will receive a visit from a registered nurse who addresses newborn and postpartum health concerns, responds to immediate needs for support and guidance such as breastfeeding and home safety, links families to community services, and helps new parents learn to better connect with their infants. These pilots are particularly timely because they will test virtual delivery methods that have been so important during the COVID-19 pandemic as potential solutions for increasing access overall.

This partnership was made possible by Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five funding. North Carolina was one of 20 states and territories awarded a three-year renewal grant starting in 2020. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $40.2 million to NCDHHS.

A needs assessment identified a great need for home visiting services, with less than 1 percent of families having access to a home visiting program in North Carolina. PDG will support expanding the Family Connects model for families with newborns, prioritizing rural communities across the state.

Family Connects will serve as a universal foundation for a coordinated continuum of family support services in each selected community, a significant step towards meeting the needs of all children statewide. Early childhood home visiting and parenting education programs strengthen the relationship between parents and children by increasing parenting skills and building confidence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress on families, making these programs especially important. Until it is safe to return to in-home visits, Family Connects nurses are serving families via telehealth and telephone, ensuring that families receive the support and connections to resources that they need.

About Family Connects

Family Connects International is a program of Duke University in partnership with the Center for Child and Family Health. FCI works with local and state governments, health-care systems, and nonprofits to plan and implement the model, providing full support for successful implementation. FCI conducts rigorous research, engages with policymakers, and collaborates with agencies across the early childhood field to improve child and family health and well-being at the population level.

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