Diane Bernstein Fellow Spotlight: Mary Katherine West

August 17, 2022
Blog Post

This summer, I joined DC Action as a Diane Bernstein Fellow and worked closely with the Home Visiting Council.  Although I had limited knowledge about home visiting in DC and the challenges facing home visitors, the Home Visiting Council welcomed me into coalition meetings centered around supporting home visitors, defining best practices, and more.

The Home Visiting Council (HV Council) is a coalition of home visiting providers, local government representatives, early childhood advocates, and community-based programs. The Council ensures that family support programs are available and accessible to expectant parents and the families of young children, secures local funding to maintain these services, and advocates for home visitors’ needs.

Home visitors are trained professionals who support families reach their goals and navigate challenges. This support comes through consistent visits with families in a safe, comfortable location of the parent’s choosing, usually the home, a library, or amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual settings.

The HV Council established that one barrier to home visiting is a lack of consistent messaging around home visiting, and misconceptions limit families’ interest in participating in home visiting. Based on experiences with law enforcement, immigration enforcement, and child protective services, families may distrust letting a support worker enter their home. But, unlike disruptive and punitive programs, home visitors recognize that all families need support through the transitory times of pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood, especially while navigating systems of racism, poverty, and injustice. Home visitors act as a link to resources in the community to strengthen families and communities rather than separate them.

Speaking with a home visitor was one of the most impactful aspects of my fellowship experience to combat misconceptions and separate home visiting from punitive programs. When describing her approach, this home visitor said, “the first question I ask a new family is if their child or children are in diapers. Then I know if I can connect them to the diaper bank.” This home visitor continued by saying that when she is with a parent, she wants them to know it’s a judgment-free zone, and all her questions are to help her understand the family’s situation and how she can be a resource to them.

The home visitor emphasized that every family is unique and has different goals or external circumstances, saying, “We are sometimes their personal Google. But sometimes we help them fill out forms.” No matter the situation, to  this home visitor, success looks like establishing open communication with the parent and getting the parent to have “more compassion and empathy towards themself and their child.”

Rather than disrupt families, home visiting is a powerful tool that improves maternal health, early childhood outcomes, and family economic security, while decreasing contact with child protective services and instances of abuse and neglect. Home visiting strengthens families and communities through building long-term relationships and providing information, evidence-based services, and referrals to other community support systems.

Through my work with the Home Visiting Council, I have had the privilege to meet many caring, passionate professionals dedicated to their communities. The lesson I will take away from this experience is the power of building trusting relationships, being connected to a supportive community, and having compassion for ourselves and others as we navigate new periods of our lives.