Opportunities Exist to Better Reach Dual Language Learner and Immigrant Families through Home Visiting Programs
Congress faces an important opportunity to support families with young children across the United States later this year, with reauthorization due for the federal Maternal, Infant, and Early Child Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. More than two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, families are still struggling with challenges including mental-health concerns, job loss, and food and housing insecurity. As a result, there has never been a greater need for more significant investments in home visiting programs, which can offer critical integration-related supports for many Dual Language Learner (DLL) and immigrant families in particular.
More than 7.4 million children ages 5 and under are DLLs, and this population has experienced rapid growth, now representing one-third of all young children in the United States. DLLs are significantly more likely than their peers to experience risks to their well-being including poverty, lack of health insurance, and limited access to technology and the internet.
The pandemic underscored the importance of supporting families holistically in order to help young children thrive. And home visiting is well-placed to provide resources and care that can lift up whole families, playing a vital role in reaching otherwise isolated parents, helping with navigation of unfamiliar systems, and connecting households to a range of beneficial support services. Even as DLL and immigrant families, in particular, can benefit from home visiting programs, they are known to be underserved by MIECHV services.
Congress should provide additional funding for home visiting services, which have been proven to provide effective two-generation supports for families with young children. States also should be encouraged to use MIECHV funds more flexibly and with a focus on equity, addressing existing gaps in services for immigrant and DLL families.
More Resources, Greater Focus Needed
MIECHV program funding has remained stagnant since 2013, restricting the program’s reach—just 3 to 5 percent of eligible families are being served. Without a substantial funding boost, programs cannot expand their services to meaningfully increase access for eligible families. Moreover, program changes could be made to promote the equitable participation of DLL and families, which are not currently priority populations for the MIECHV program.
The vast majority of states also do not include indicators related to these groups—such as home languages spoken or English language proficiency—in their state needs assessments. Furthermore, the rigorous evidence-based approach that is used by the Home Visiting Evidence of Effectiveness (HomVEE) process in order to select home visiting models that can be funded through MIECHV does not necessarily reflect the specific needs and experiences of DLL and immigrant families. Also, models that have demonstrated success and operate in ways that are culturally tailored to meet this population’s needs may face difficulties being approved by HomVEE due to the intensive resources required and obstacles associated with this process.
Under MIECHV, states are allowed to spend up to 25 percent of their funding to administer innovative programs not yet approved by HomVEE. However, only three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Kansas) have utilized any of their funds in this way. Moreover, despite the fact that states also fund home visiting through non-MIECHV sources, many primarily use MIECHV-approved models through these funding streams as well, demonstrating the weight of the federal program’s influence in shaping the overall home visiting field.
More Than an Afterthought
The growing DLL population across the country calls for home visiting approaches that center culture and language and do not treat these elements as an afterthought. When successful, home visiting programs can support DLL and immigrant families in myriad ways, including by promoting the use of home language between parents and their children, which has proven benefits for school readiness and cognitive development. However, parenting is intimately linked to culture, and programs and staff not appropriately equipped to work effectively with diverse populations risk providing irrelevant services or even causing harm. Research shows that home visitors and their supervisors are overwhelmingly White, and do not reflect the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of their clients.
As policymakers and advocates look ahead to MIECHV reauthorization in September, they might consider including language that requires states to make use of and report on the 25 percent of funds that can be used toward implementing and evaluating innovative models that are not yet “evidence-based.” This could be one way of encouraging the use of home visiting models that are focused on effectively serving DLL, immigrant, and other underserved communities, while also contributing to the field’s knowledge base of home visiting strategies and approaches specific to serving these populations. At a time of rapid demographic change, encouraging innovation is an important way of ensuring that programs such as MIECHV keep pace with the evolving characteristics of the families they seek to serve. Encouraging the use of other models could also open up the possibility of serving DLL and immigrant families in new, strategic ways: for example, by serving noncustodial family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) caregivers who provide care for the vast majority of young DLL children in nonparental care. Most FFN caregivers have little access to professional development, and support.
At the state level, administrators should be mindful of including DLL-specific indicators in future state needs assessments and gathering home language data to promote equitable services and gain a clear picture of target beneficiaries for their programs. New priority should also be given to incentivizing the hiring and retention of home visiting staff who are racially and linguistically representative of the families they serve. And program administrators should seek to ensure more rigorous training is given to staff around bias, equity, and inclusive practices.
The pandemic has had harmful impacts on all families, with disproportionate effects suffered by immigrant families and other communities of color. The expansion of programs such as MIECHV could support families and help them thrive at a time when their young children stand to benefit most from high-quality services.
Efforts to close service gaps and increase access for populations that have historically been underserved, however, must be intentional, and any expansion of funding and services must go hand in hand with a close look at what works and does not work in order to achieve more equitable outcomes for DLL and immigrant families.