New Mexico Program Gives First-Time Parents A Place To Turn

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, March 20, 2015 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, March 23, 2015 - 8:18am
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The First Born Program in New Mexico gives support to first-time parents, including little Jeremiah's mom, Katrina Rios. First Born works with new parents until their children turn 3.

SILVER CITY, N.M. — Researchers have known for some time that children who experience abuse and neglect will continue to be negatively affected - even as adults. But it’s not always clear how to protect youngsters. A program in New Mexico that may have cracked the code.

Seven-month-old Jeremiah was smiling and squirming at the two women cooing over him in a Silver City apartment.

“He’s a happy baby?” asked Carmen Ortiz.                

“A very happy baby,” replied his mom, Katrina Rios.

“And it’s due to all the love you give him and the time you spend with him, you know,” Ortiz said, smiling.

Ortiz is a friend, teacher and helping hand for Rios. But Ortiz’s official title is home visitor from the First Born Program. Ortiz has been visiting with the 21-year-old mother since her first baby was born about 18 months ago. Ortiz will keep coming by the until Rios’ oldest boy is three.

“It’s nice to have someone tell me I’m doing a good job, because then it makes me feel like I’m doing great,” Rios said. “Like, they’re on track, so I’m doing good. And it helps a lot.”

First Born has been giving this kind of help to Grant County parents in southwest New Mexico since 1997. It has since spread to many other counties in the state. Anyone parenting a baby for the first time is eligible, regardless of gender or income. The program spends an average of $3,400 per family – or $3.7 million statewide – each year in public and private money. But that’s still much cheaper than most other home visitation programs across the country. And for all parents, including Rios, First Born is entirely free.

“I learn a lot from Carmen,” Rios said. “And she also helps and gives me advice.”

Like today, when Ortiz gently convinced Rios to talk to a counselor about her postpartum depression. Later, as Ortiz and I drive away, she says bringing up things like this is always delicate.

“And all I can do is not just be a teacher, but I want to meet them where they’re at,” Ortiz said. “And then I just walk with them.”

Through whatever they’re dealing with, whether it’s an abusive partner or potty training. And that’s making a difference, according to the RAND Corporation, a global research think tank. The group says First Born children are breastfed longer, have fewer emergency room visits and fewer hospitalizations than other local children.

What’s less quantifiable is the benefit parents feel from having someone they can always turn to.

In a house across town, 3-month-old Aria Yniguez was the star of the show as her home visitor Veronica Maynes checked in with parents Anna and Ciye. The topic? Peek-a-boo.

“She kind of stares at me like I’ve lost my mind,” said Anna Yniguez, “but that’s OK.”

“That look never goes away,” Maynes joked. “My teenage son still gives me that look, so it’s OK.”

Their connection hasn’t always been so light-hearted. Anna Yniguez also went through a bout of postpartum depression. She says it took Maynes’ support to help her get through these first three months.

“It’s a full time job. So you go to a full-time job, and you come home to a full-time job. That was definitely a shock,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, babies sleep all the time, right?’ No, no, they don’t.”

And that kind of stuff can blindside you, no matter if you’re a first-time parent at age 40 or 14. First Born has worked with both.

As founder Vicki Johnson put it: “We’re all in this together, and we all have something to learn.”

That’s why Johnson doesn’t just see home visitation as a “nice thing."

“It is an imperative,” she said. “We, as a culture, cannot allow our babies and our children to experience adverse childhood experiences. It impacts the rest of their life.”

First Born may soon get help in this fight. The RAND Corporation is in the process of possibly giving the program what’s called “evidenced-based” status. That would make it eligible for federal money. And allow it to expand — perhaps to Arizona.