N.J.’s landmark home visitation law for new mothers and children should be national model

New mothers will get visit from registered nurse within two weeks of returning home

Every first-time parent knows the amazing joy — and incredible fear — that comes with bringing your baby home for the first time.

After a hospital stay in which you had a team of health care professionals helping, guiding and advising you on every aspect of being a new parent, you are suddenly on your own — especially those who do not have a close relative nearby.

On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy did something to change that.

In landmark legislation that could — and should — become a national model, New Jersey is establishing a statewide universal newborn home visitation program in which a registered nurse will conduct a home visit for all mothers and newborns within two weeks of birth.

The program will serve both adoptive and resource parents, as well as those families who experience stillbirths — and it will come at no cost to the family.

Home visits will feature an evidence-based evaluation of the physical, emotional and social factors affecting parents and their newborn, including physical and mental health wellness checks, breastfeeding support and reproductive planning, environmental assessments of the home and assessments for social determinants of health, such as food security, transportation access, child care planning and employment, to ensure families have their needs identified and met.

The program was a key recommendation in the Nurture NJ Maternal and Infant Health Strategic Plan, which was unveiled in January by first lady Tammy Murphy, who has made maternal and infant care one of her top priorities.

The plan aims to reduce maternal mortality in the state by 50% over five years and eliminate the racial disparities in birth outcomes.

“As we work to combat New Jersey’s Black maternal and infant health crisis through Nurture NJ, we know that those first weeks post-partum are absolutely critical in determining maternal and infant health outcomes,” Tammy Murphy said. “Through this universal home visiting program, we are making clear to all New Jersey families that their health, wellness and development are our highest priority, beginning with birth.

“For three years, Nurture NJ has been moving steadily ahead in our mission to make New Jersey the safest and most equitable place in the nation to deliver and raise a baby. This new initiative does more than accelerate our progress, it explicitly tackles equity, enables wraparound care and directly launches us to the forefront of maternal health care.”

Primary sponsors of the legislation include Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), and Assemblymembers Shanique Speight (D-Newark), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) and John Armato (D-Northfield).

Ruiz said she knows firsthand the potential of the program.

“This legislation was born out of my own personal experience with a lactation nurse who visited my home soon after I gave birth to my daughter,” she said. “The time spent with her changed my whole outlook. She answered my questions and gave me the reassurance I needed.

“I realized, if we could provide a service like this early to new mothers and parents, they would have additional support to rely on during what is one of the most challenging periods of parenthood.”

The statistics around this issue are startling, Ruiz said.

“Approximately 52% of maternal deaths nationwide occur during the postpartum period and nearly two-thirds of deaths are attributed to preventable causes,” she said. “Especially because our maternal mortality rate places us among the last in the nation, we must do anything we can to support women and parents. Having a home visit will benefit both the caretaker and the newborn; it is essential in diagnosing conditions before it is too late and connecting parents to the care and assistance they need.”

Of course, the most surprising statistic may be that New Jersey is the first state to institute the policy.

New Jersey Department of Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer explained the need in a simple way.

“Children don’t come with an instruction manual,” she said. “In the field of child welfare, we know that young children — particularly birth until 5 — are at the highest risk of becoming victims of child abuse and neglect, with infants being the most vulnerable.

“Through the provision of universal home visiting, we can offer education and support, identify potential challenges early and refer out to additional services if needed. The universality ensures that all families have equal access to the same critical resources and supports, without stigma, that will enhance the health and well-being of the entire family.”