Ask the Expert: Andrea Siani and JF&CS Healthy Families
Shared by Andrea Siani
JF&CS Healthy Families is a voluntary and confidential home visiting program for first-time pregnant and/or parenting moms and dads age 20 and under. Home visits are provided weekly for the first six months of the baby’s life and then are adjusted to meet the family’s needs until the child turns three. Funded by a grant from the Children’s Trust, the program works with each young family to identify their strengths, set and achieve personal goals, explore child development topics and support positive parenting, and work towards becoming the parents they want to be.
What are the goals of the Healthy Families program?
The Healthy Families program has five main goals:
- Prevent child abuse and neglect by supporting positive, effective parenting skills
- Achieve optimal health, growth, and development in infancy and early childhood
- Promote increased educational attainment, job, and life skills
- Reduce repeat teen pregnancies, and
- Promote optimal parental health and wellness.
Essentially, while building a trusting relationship, we help teen parents develop confidence and competence as young adults and young parents. We provide support groups, connections to resources in their communities, regular child development assessments, and information to support teen parents through the many challenges of parenting. We are able to provide services in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian to meet our families’ needs.
Who refers Healthy Families participants to you?
We make sure that our community partners know that we’re here and what services we offer so when they have a pregnant teen come to them, they are able to say, “I know of this supportive program that is specifically for young parents.” We receive our referrals from obstetricians, prenatal providers, pediatricians, high school guidance counselors, WIC (Women, Infants, & Children, a federally-funded nutrition program for families), hospital social workers, and sometimes through teens’ friends who have been pregnant and participated in the program. Healthy Families is a voluntary program and the young parents must agree to allow us to reach out to them once a referral is made. We understand that teens have more chance for success when they make the choice to accept help themselves.
What takes place in the first few meetings with a Healthy Families participant?
We are an intensive home visiting program. Ideally we meet wherever our young parent calls home but it could also be wherever they feel comfortable and safe, including shelters, friends’ homes, coffee shops, libraries, or at their high school. During the first meetings we get to know each other by explaining our program and the services we offer and learning about what support the young parent might need. Within the first few visits, our young parents and their advocates start to build a trusting relationship from which they can begin exploring the young parent’s goals and needs. These may include finding resources for housing, daycare, education, and jobs along with reading, playing, and getting outside with their baby. We create family goal plans that include manageable steps that can be taken to achieve those goals.
All of our young parents want to be good parents but some have no role models or guides. We can be there to explore what being a good parent might look like. We can help them sort through their questions: Why is it important to read to my baby? Why is it important to talk to my baby? How much does my baby need to eat?
Most importantly, we come to each home visit without judgement and ready to listen carefully and meet each teen parent where they are.
What makes JF&CS Healthy Families so unique?
We are located within the JF&CS Center for Early Relationship Support® (CERS), which has always been at the forefront of understanding the needs of and supporting new parents. Healthy Families is a strength-based program, meaning when we work with families we don’t begin by looking for what’s wrong and how to fix it. Rather we look at what’s going right and how we can build on that. We provide child assessments at intervals throughout the three years that look at developmental milestones. We focus on what activities can be done to strengthen the child’s development both physically and emotionally, as well as the parent-child relationship. We emphasize the role of the parent as the child’s first teacher. We discuss ideas for addressing sleep issues, tantrums, feeding options and practices, potty training, discipline, and relationships. Often, we connect our young families to other JF&CS programs, including Family Table, New England’s largest kosher food pantry, Hunger and Nutrition, the Center for Basic Needs Assistance, and Journey to Safety, the JF&CS response to domestic abuse.
How did you get into this type of work?
I have worked supporting community health for my entire adult life. I started out as a high school science teacher focusing on health science and physiology. I’ve always loved working with adolescents and then I had three children of my own. While at home raising them I stayed involved in student health issues in my community. When my youngest child entered high school, this role came along that allowed me to work with adolescents, babies, and health. It was a perfect fit. We know that the first three years of a baby’s life are a crucial time of brain development and this is also true for the adolescent period. Our work allows us to provide support during both of these important stages of development. I feel lucky to have found this second career.
What is one of the most rewarding aspects of your job?
I have a wonderful and dedicated staff that inspires me daily with the compassion and thoughtfulness they bring to their work. Supporting them as the Director of Healthy Families is extremely rewarding. In addition, working with our young parents; it is an honor to be invited into their lives. The ability to provide support by just being present and offering the space for them to voice what they’re feeling and really listening is amazing in itself. Many of our young parents have not had their thoughts, hopes, and dreams ever validated. This support we provide can be so empowering and rewarding as it is often the first step towards change, growth, and the healthy nurturing of a new life.