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We Must Lend Helping HANDS

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Kentucky is fortunate to have the HANDS (Home Access Nurturing and Development) program, offered on a voluntary basis through local health departments to young parents who are facing extra challenges. Nurses, social workers and/or paraprofessionals make regular visits to these young families, beginning before a baby is born and continuing until the child turns two, providing information about health, safety and child development.

HANDS helps foster a positive parent-child relationship which is the foundation for all learning and future relationships. Parents learn their child's cues for communication and the child in turn learns trust and security.

Parents also learn about baby-proofing their homes and how to access and use car seats. They are taught about the importance of well-baby checkups, vaccinations, nutrition and dental care; nurses can apply dental varnish as baby teeth emerge to prevent cavities. Parents learn what's normal behavior, how to respond to their children and why it is important to talk to and read to their children.

They also are given encouragement and support in dealing with the challenges of raising infants and toddlers, a daunting task for any new parent but one that is especially difficult for those who deal with difficulties such as poverty, single parenthood and lack of education.

Research conducted by Nobel economist James Heckman, who spoke in Kentucky last fall about the "skills gap," shows the cycle of poverty begins in the earliest years when brain development is most critical. Heckman notes that the foundation for building such lifelong skills as listening, following instructions, completing tasks, communicating and working well with others is established well before children enter kindergarten.

Language development follows the same pattern. Parenting skills and early interventions like HANDS can make a difference.

HANDS was created by the Kentucky Department for Public Health following the legislature's 2000 enactment of KIDS NOW initiatives. The program is funded with part of the money Kentucky receives under the master settlement agreement with tobacco companies, money that is supplemented with a federal grant and Medicaid funds.

That funding is at risk. As Kentuckians smoke less -- a good thing -- there are fewer tobacco settlement dollars available for this valuable program. Without a reliable source of funding, the program will lose federal matching money and be unable to serve our most vulnerable families.

And that would be a great loss for Kentucky, the only state in the nation that provides such a program in every one of its counties. More than 11,000 families receive services each year. The returns are impressive.

Compared to families who are not part of the program research, HANDS families are:

• Less likely to have premature or low birth-weight babies.

• Less likely to experience child abuse or neglect.

• Less likely to use the emergency room.

• More likely to return to school or the work place.

The savings are obvious -- both in real dollars and in establishing a stronger foundation for future learning for these children.

Supporting HANDS is the goal of legislation before the 2013 General Assembly. Senate Bill 74, sponsored by Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, (which passed out of the Senate 37-0 and is now going to the House) would ensure home-visiting programs that receive state funding meet the same rigorous requirements for quality and results that HANDS does today.

Among other things, the legislation also would assure taxpayers of a strong return on their investment by requiring reports on programs' effectiveness and prohibiting any duplication of services. Kentucky needs to invest our tax dollars in programs that are proven to save money in the long run while improving the lives of children and their families.

HANDS is one of those programs, and it -- along with legislation like Senate Bill 74 that strengthens HANDS -- deserves our full support. My goal in writing this for the Lexington Herald Leader and sharing it with you today is to encourage you to support and advocate for successful programs like this in your communities.

Follow Stu Silberman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/stusilbermanfc

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