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First Lady Visits 'Healthy Families'

Local program aims to teach parents of at-risk children how to be parents.

For the past year, since their son, Cameron, was born, Chris and Christine Dutton have welcomed a nurse and a social worker into their Reston home twice a month. On Tuesday morning, the Duttons welcomed a nurse, a social worker and the First Lady of Virginia, Lisa Collis.

Collis was on hand to observe firsthand a "Healthy Families Fairfax" team from the county's Department of Family Services office in Reston.

Healthy Families is a prevention and intensive home-visiting program, in partnership locally with Reston Interfaith, that helps first-time parents, like the Duttons, cope with the stresses that go along with being first-time parents. The program provides education, therapeutic and supportive services to parents beginning, in some cases, before the baby is even born, to help prevent child abuse and neglect and to promote child health.

"It has been a lot of help. I was really scared after I took the pregnancy test at the health center. My first thought was, 'Oh, God, now what?'" Christine Dutton, 25, said, after her bi-weekly home visit. "It has taught me really to take care of myself and Cameron."

With her visit on Tuesday, the governor's wife wrapped up a statewide tour of all 37 Healthy Families centers in Virginia. "It's a very excellent and effective program," said Collis, shortly after sitting in on the Dutton's latest home visit. "All of the research shows just how important the first three months of a child's life is. What I like about this program is the wonderful evaluations the parents receive. It takes time to become a good parent and Healthy Families makes sure children grow up healthy and better prepared for school."

WITH FREQUENT VISITS from Katherine Harrison, a county social worker, and Kate Nelson, a public health nurse, along with other family support workers, Dutton gets up-to-date progress reports on everything from her parenting skills to breast feeding and nutrition lessons to her son's mental and physical development. The program is voluntary, and the families, a majority of whom are single parent units and 80 percent of which speak Spanish, are recommended from a variety of sources.

"We are here to help ensure that babies are born healthy and that their new parents are provided the skills necessary for their child's development," said Ina Fernandez, the program manager.

The program creates bonds between the social workers, nurses and families. "It can be tough at times trying not to get emotionally involved with the families," said Harrison, who has been with the program since 1998. "Sometimes I have to remind myself to let the families be the families."

Nelson, the nurse, said it is very satisfying to see parents, like the Duttons, who really have taken to the program. "Often times, we will go out to the home and they will already be doing everything the nurse told them to do," Nelson said.

The Duttons are one of about 115 families receiving services from the Reston office and one of the more than 600 families in the county to take part in the program.

"Having a child has been a very life-changing event for us," Christine Dutton said. "Our whole perspective on life has changed because of Cameron and this program. We now know it is more all about him."

Part of a nationwide organization, Healthy Families came to Fairfax County in 1992, focusing on Falls Church. By 1998, the county had created four regional neighborhood family resource centers, including the one in Reston. With nearly 40 case workers, the Fairfax County branch is the second largest in the state.

WITH SUPPORT from private companies and Reston Interfaith and other non-profit organizations, Healthy Families is not completely dependent on county money. Nevertheless, they all have their eyes on the county's budget cuts. "I'd love to say it's not about the money," Nelson said. "But you can't provide the services without it."

Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) counts herself as one of the program's biggest supporters. "It truly is an investment program. The benefits are long term and the benefits allow our community to forgo other expenses ā€” cost of child protection, incarceration, remediation are insurmountable," Hudgins said. "It's a proven success, you can't spend better money on a program like this. We will not be reducing that. We believe we do a cost effective job and we believe it is a program we should support."