Parenthood is an adventure like no other, but for first-time parents, it can also be overwhelming. Hailey Heinz, a University of New Mexico alumna and research scientist at UNM's Cradle to Career Policy Institute, is a mother of two, so she understands firsthand the challenges new parents might face. This understanding adds to her passion for her research and data collection with the First Born home visiting program.

First Born was created in Grant County in 1997 to address the health and wellness of first-time parents, from pregnancy until the child turns three. First Born matches families with home visitors, who visit the home weekly to help with goals and struggles and helps establish a nurturing, supportive environment for the child in the critical first three years of life. The program is now statewide.

In 2018 First Born transitioned to Santa Fe Community College and has now partnered with UNM CCPI to use data and research to strengthen the program. Heinz is the lead PI on the current study; she and her team look specifically at the program’s referral services — when a home visitor connects families with various services in their community that First Born cannot provide directly, such as counseling, speech therapy, and intervention programs.

Hailey Heinz
Hailey Heinz, research scientist at UNM's Cradle to Career Policy Institute.

“We want to know how well this part of the program is working and, in areas where it isn’t working, understand why and how home visitors could be better supported,” says Heinz.

This isn’t the first time UNM has helped with home visiting data reporting. For the last six years, the researchers at CCPI have worked with the State’s Children, Youth, and Families Department to analyze information on home visiting program activities and participant wellbeing. The data is compiled and prepared into reports that are presented to the New Mexico State Legislature and to the Office of the Governor. Heinz understands the importance of this data and the stories it can tell. The current research builds on CCPI’s experience with the last six years of data.

“Because we are data people and we are not home visitors, we sometimes have found ourselves looking at the screening and referral data wondering what story the data is telling us,” says Heinz, “and so this project is about interviewing First Born home visitors about this aspect of their work and trying to understand what it actually looks like to screen and refer a family, and what works well and what gets in the way. So it’s a continuation of work we’ve been doing for six years, in that sense.”

While it is too early to say what the research will show, Heinz said some preliminary themes have emerged from the interviews. For example, home visitors serving rural communities have said transportation is a significant barrier for families, who may receive a referral for services they need, but lack the ability to get to the nearest city for services. “That’s an issue that First Born can’t address alone, but we can report those findings to policymakers and try to prompt a conversation about the systems and infrastructure that are needed for home visiting to work optimally,” Heinz said.

Research into early childhood, in general, shows the importance of physical, mental, and environmental wellness for development. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, “what happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s developmental trajectory and life-course.” Analysis of the First Born program is critical for not only the success of the program itself, but to better support families in the program. New Mexico needs early childhood intervention, and the analysis by Heinz and her team will ensure First Born remains effective for New Mexico children and their families.

“There is such a pressing need in New Mexico to get this right, and to invest in children in ways that are effective,” says Heinz. “So the kind of work we do at the Cradle to Career Policy Institute, including this project, is really focused on providing data and analysis to support the state in keeping track of how these programs are working and how we might improve them. And that, to me, is important to everyone who lives in New Mexico and cares about the well-being of children.”

"First Born has a history of looking to data and research to help us understand whether our program is resulting in positive outcomes for families," said Tekla Johnson, director, First Born® Home Visiting program. "This work with UNM CCPI is part of our broader strategy to build the evidence base for First Born, and help us identify if there are breakdowns in the referral process for home visitors connecting families to services. Identifying any barriers in that process will help us support best practices and policies that could strengthen the system and make referrals for families more seamless."