Visiting nurses transform the lives of young moms and their babies in a crime-preventing program.

Share story

Last summer, when King County ramped up its efforts to fight gangs, its response included hiring two nurses.

While most of the additional anti-gang money went to law enforcement, County Executive Dow Constantine said in announcing the effort, “We know we can’t arrest our way out of crime.”

Prevention is the smartest response, and that’s where the nurses come in.

The county’s Nurse-Family Partnership now has 24 registered nurses who work with girls and young women during their first pregnancies and through the baby’s second birthday.

Studies show the program gets results. Here and across the country, children who’ve been in the program have better outcomes in health and education as they grow up. And they are much less likely to get involved in crime than children from comparable families who did not have the program’s support. Mothers and subsequent children do much better, too.

The King County program serves 600 low-income mothers.

One morning this week I went along with one of the nurses, Julie Crassweller, on visits to two of her moms.

We stopped first in Burien and wound our way through an apartment complex to the home of 24-year-old Heidi and her 20-month-old son.

Heidi said Josiah had been rubbing his gums. Julie asked about his teeth and his visit to the dentist, and mentioned some things to look for.

Crassweller sat cross-legged on the carpet, and they talked about bedtime routines and about activities that show how he’s developing and learning. He can say “up,” “down,” and call some people by their names, his mother said.

How about combining words, Crassweller asked? “He says, ‘No, Mommy,’ ” Heidi said.

“Next month if you’re interested, there’s a 21-month word count you can do,” Crassweller said.

There is no “do this, don’t do that.” The program works through the relationship between the mom and nurse. Lois Schipper, the home-visit coordinator for the White Center Early Learning Initiative, told me nurses start with the idea that the clients are the experts on their own lives. In her visits, Crassweller points out what the mothers are doing well and asks questions about areas that could be better.

In Burien, she visits Joyce and her baby, who is 4 months old. Joyce, 20, said she found out about the program on a visit to the Rainier Beach Community Clinic. “I told them I was down and needed someone to talk to,” she said.

Crassweller notices that while he’s not quite crawling, DeShon is grabbing at everything.

So she asked his mother, “Now that he’s starting to move and reach, what kinds of changes are you making to keep him safe?

Joyce said she’s keeping small objects away from him, and she’ll do more when he starts crawling.

Crassweller said both Heidi and Joyce are very good mothers. Some mothers need lots more help, especially the teenagers.

Schipper, the home-visit coordinator, said nurses try to get mothers to think about how their actions affect their babies.

One mother was hitting her child, Schipper recalled.

Rather than getting into an unproductive confrontation, the nurse asked, “What do you think he’s feeling when you hit him? What do you think he’s thinking?”

One of the aims of the program is to prevent child abuse and neglect. Over time that mother learned to relate to her child differently. Some young moms have to learn about the negative impact of smoking or drinking.

Nurses have to teach the mother who leaves an infant on the edge of a couch or thinks it’s OK to dangle a baby by his arms.

The nurses try to get the mothers to see themselves as their child’s first teacher and to feel good about their role in shaping a new life.

Nurses adapt and tailor their help to each mother’s needs.

They point moms to resources to help with jobs, housing, education, but their main focus is on the child’s development.

In regular visits, the nurses get to know their moms and their life circumstances.

They make a difference during the babies’ time of intense physical and mental development, when they can get the most benefit.

Early intervention is one of the best investments a community can make. One study said it’s a five-to-one return on investment. When I was looking at those healthy babies, it felt like a lot more than that.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or