To supporters, home visiting programs are the Swiss Army knives of social policy and should be a key feature of any plan to make America more competitive and reduce inequality. Political support for evidence-based home visiting programs is so broad-based that in March, the nation's frequently deadlocked Congress approved a six month funding extension. The move will keep the programs operating until next year.
In Memphis, just whom that funding might reach is clear. "Juice, juice, juice," Darnell Jr. chants as Givens enters the apartment. There's none of the telltale middle-class clutter of families with young children. There are no clusters of toys, no rubber play mat or shelves overflowing with books or baby equipment.
Givens put the zip-top bag on the living room coffee table, near the spot where Darnell Jr. is busy testing the limits of his sippy cup. Taking a seat on the couch, Givens opens her binder and spreads out a few worksheets.
"Ok, let's hear it," Givens says.
"I got a job," Bowen tells her, smiling broadly.
"You know we couldn't wait to tell you Ms. De," says Logwood, Bowen's girlfriend of six years. "You are like family."
During the exchange, Darnell Jr. abandons the sippy-cup project and begins shaking the bag.
"Oh my goodness," says Givens. "That is just great! I knew it would happen." She switches seamlessly from encouragement to observation. "Now, Mom, Dad, do you see what Junior is doing? This is the kind of activity that builds his awareness of sounds and lets him work on those gross and fine motor skills that a curious and increasingly mobile 18-month-old needs."
Returning her attention to Bowen, Givens says, "Okay, now, Dad. Tell me about it. What kind of job?"
The conversation is an exemplar of Given's work with the family. She's there to help Logwood and Bowen understand their son's emotional, physical, and intellectual needs. But she also covers some deeply sensitive and personal topics that can be closely connected to family well-being: birth-control options, finances, communication, and effective discipline. To create the best environment for Darnell Jr., Givens has helped the parents identify financial and other goals.
For the family, the struggle for financial solvency can often get in the way of what they want and need to do to help the toddler develop. Logwood, Bowen, and Darnell Jr. have spent much of the past year couch-surfing, staying with family and friends. When both parents lost their jobs last year, unpaid rent forced them to leave their apartment. Each grew up in what Givens describes as troubled families where their health, safety, and development were not consistent priorities.
Logwood and Bowen each describe themselves as "affiliated," Memphis-speak for loyal to but no longer consistently active in gangs. They have also weathered intermittent waves of depression and grief over the past few years. Longwood's first pregnancy ended with a miscarriage at seven months gestation. The healthy birth of Darnell Jr. was an occasion for celebration, but Logwood's third pregnancy ended less than two months ago when she miscarried twins.
"To me, this family is really emblematic of what this program is all about," Givens says back in her office after the visit. "Their life includes lots of sad realities, rolled into one. But the same love and hope that so many people have for their children is there. They just need the tools, a little something to get Junior where he is perfectly capable of going."