In many tribal cultures, too much planning for a baby’s birth is seen as tempting fate. You don’t build the nursery or talk about names, for example, until after the child is born. As a family health educator with the White Mountain Apache people, knowing and respecting our culture helps me to build a trusting relationship with moms-to-be before their babies are born – and also to be prepared, help them get diapers, carseats and all the material necessities of new motherhood, as soon as they are ready for them.
It may seem like a small thing, but to new mothers, being understood, listened to and respected is very important and helps set the stage for a trusting relationship so we can work together for many years to come.
Placing value, understanding and respecting my tribal culture is key to the work I do with the Family Spirit program on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. I visit these young moms in their homes during their pregnancy, helping guide them toward proper prenatal care which helps to prepare them to give birth to healthy babies. I continue to visit them when their child is born, every week at first, changing to every two weeks at three months and once a month at six months until the baby reaches three years old. We talk about swaddling and diapering, feeding and family budgeting. We teach about how important it is to interact with your baby, about how your baby is a sponge, constantly learning and absorbing everything we say and do.
I am blessed to bring my passion for my people to the work that I do. I too am a young mother and I am learning along with my clients, most of who are between 12 and 20 years old. My work is made possible in part by the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, also known as MIECHV, which provides support for the kind of work I do, on and off reservations, with American Indians and people from every other racial and ethnic heritage in America, in rural communities and major cities and everywhere in between, all around the country. This low-cost, high return on investment program will expire in September if Congress does not act to reauthorize it. We should not let this happen. Congress should not only continue MIECHV, but expand it. More help is still needed.
The results are astounding. I have seen young teen mothers who are scared grow into confident parents. I have seen hope making its way through generations of poverty and historical trauma. I have been able to help mothers increase their knowledge and understanding of our tribal culture – how to wrap a baby in an Apache cradleboard, which is a secure and safe place for baby – by way of just one example.
What I have seen is typical, in fact, quantifiable. All MIECHV-funded programs are evidence-based, meaning they have been thoroughly studied to determine whether they work to improve outcomes for parents and children. They do.
Family Spirit is uniquely tailored to address the behavioral health disparities that pose the greatest challenges to Native communities. Three randomized controlled trials have documented important results including: increased parenting knowledge and involvement; decreased maternal depression; increased home safety; decreased emotional and behavioral problems of mothers; and decreased emotional and behavioral problems of children.
Other home visiting models offer similarly positive, replicable results. A randomized trial of short-term outcomes for participants with Healthy Families America, which provides home visiting in Arizona, showed strong improvements in home safety, parenting practices and overall home environments. Nurse-Family Partnership, also in Maricopa, Pima and other Arizona counties, has been shown to result in positive outcomes including better prenatal health, increased maternal employment and fewer childhood injuries.
Overall, MIECHV made home visits possible in more than half of the counties of Arizona, serving parents and children in 2,261 counties in 2015 alone.
The numbers tell a great story but they just cannot capture the joy of watching a young mom, a teenager, pick up a book, plop her toddler down on her lap and run her finger over the words in a picture book. It is a tiny moment, but it changes everything for that mom, for that child, and eventually, I believe, for our community.
Shasta Dazen is a home visitor with Family Spirit Fort Apache Indian Reservation