FARGO, N.D. — As a first-time mom, Lydia Kiyee wanted to provide the best for her baby when he arrived.
So when she spotted a flier about the Healthy Families home-visiting program, it sounded like exactly what she needed.
Through the free, voluntary program, she was connected with Abby DeWitt, Healthy Families program coordinator, even before her baby was born.
Now her child, Justice, is a happy, active 2-year-old who likes to wave and greet everyone they meet, whether they know the person or not. Through all his developmental stages so far, Kiyee says DeWitt has been a powerful source of information and support.
“As a first-time mom, it’s kind of nerve-wracking, with a new baby coming into the world,” says Kiyee, a 24-year-old Fargo resident. “Especially if you don’t have any experience, it helps seeing other people’s perspectives. It’s great for her to be teaching me, as the baby grows, and keeping me focused on how to raise him. She’s a great woman and she motivates me.”
Healthy Families visits aren’t just cheerleading sessions — although encouragement is plentiful. Home visitors, who are trained in everything from child development to trauma, also teach new parents about which developmental milestones to watch for, show them healthy bonding behaviors and help them problem-solve particular issues. They cover vital topics ranging from pregnancy wellness, parenting skills and child safety to nutrition, parental stress reduction and even financial well-being.
The voluntary program typically takes place during a crucial period for child development and parent-child bonding: from prenatal to age 3. Home visits (a remote option is also available) start out once per week, then are scaled back as parents meet goals and feel ready for less support, DeWitt says.
While parents who enroll in Healthy Families sometimes have extra challenges such as struggles with postpartum depression or a history of substance-abuse, the program is open to any new parent who wants to get their child off to a healthy start.
“Parenting is one of those journeys that more of the population experiences than doesn’t,” says Missi Baranko, who heads USpireND, the nonprofit organization which took over Healthy Families from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota when LSSND closed in early 2021. “It doesn’t come with a handbook. It’s the most rewarding, scary, hard thing we do.”
Program’s not new, but it’s new to Fargo
In addition to providing home visits, Healthy Families
like parenting support groups, family events, breast-feeding support and car seat-safety checks.
Although LSSND first introduced Healthy Families to the Grand Forks area back in 2000, it has only reached the Fargo area in the last year, Baranko says.
Following LSS’s closure,
program because they believed it makes a real difference.
parents who complete the program report positive outcomes such as stronger parent-child bonds, greater understanding of child safety and child development, significant reductions in child maltreatment, better maternity health, fewer lower-birth-weight babies, improved school readiness, less family violence and heightened economic self-sufficiency.
Under LSSND’s umbrella, Healthy Families’ statewide growth had been thoughtful but slow, with program organizers leaving expansion to regions like Cass County because those areas were already served by other home-visitation programs, like the
through Cass County Health.
But with Baranko and
at the helm, Healthy Families has grown vigorously — reaching not only into Cass County but 27 other counties.
Part of the expansion can be chalked up to Baranko’s tireless fundraising efforts, which have required cobbling together a complex network of foundations, private funding, individual donations and government grants.“We are funded by 30 different sources,” she says.
Another major factor is what Baranko sees as an ever-growing need for resources to serve young families.
Healthy Families wound up taking on eight counties in the last two and a half years when Barnes County Public Health received a federal grant to offer home-visitations and partnered with Healthy Families to provide them. “For every county we provide services we have to find community partners to support the efforts,” Baranko says. “We then blend this with other funding such as funding we receive through the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Baranko also began receiving referrals of families who would benefit from home-visitation in Cass County, but there wasn’t a Healthy Families presence there yet. She reached out to their parent organization, Healthy Families America, to receive approval to expand to Fargo and the surrounding areas.
With the national organization’s blessing, Baranko says the state’s Healthy Families “opened the door softly” in Cass County in January and February of this year. Since then, she has filled the caseloads of two home visitors and is looking to hire a third.
“Our belief is that there are so many children out there that there’s no way, with even two visitation programs in the community, that we’re going to be able to capture every family,” she says.
For any new parent who wants to parent better
As of August 2023, Baranko says the state Healthy Families program served 249 families throughout North Dakota with 3,145 visits. This is an increase of 45 families from two years ago.
Of those 2023 numbers, 20 families were located in Cass County and have received 267 visits so far.
So who uses Healthy Families? According to Baranko, the program helps parents who:
- Are first-time parents
- Are enrolled in social services
- Are affected by mental health issues, chemical dependency, unemployment, homelessness or other factors which might affect family security. “One of our big goals is to really prevent child abuse and neglect,” Baranko says. “But how I think of it is that our goal is to keep children with their parents and families, so we want to pay extra attention to those risk factors which often lead to homelessness.”
- Deal with postpartum depression.
- Are or who have been incarcerated.
- Are without a built-in support network close by. “Sometimes parents just don’t have anybody else,” Baranko says. “When I had my babies, my kids had grandparents really close, so we had lots of support. But many families don’t. They don’t have that extra support or that kind of auntie or grandma or sibling to ask, ‘Is this normal?’”
- Simply want to be better parents. In some cases, Baranko says, parents just want to learn more so they can give their baby a healthy start in life. In others, parents may have had a significant gap between children, so feel they need a refresher. “Regardless of whether it’s the first baby or the fourth, there’s changes happening and the balancing of family life and taking care of a new baby,” she says.
Although enrollment typically happens sometime between pregnancy and the first three months of a child’s life, Baranko says they will extend enrollment periods for parents who are under more stress because they’re involved in child welfare services.
In those cases, parents can sign up for the program up until the child’s second birthday and remain with Healthy Families until the child turns 5.
“That, again, is a focus and effort on keeping children with their families,” Baranko says. “So those families are often ones that maybe there are some concerns, there’s some risks … We want to meet families where they are and really look at that family’s well-being.”
Parents are typically referred to Healthy Families by birthing centers, public health clinics, developmental screening programs, county and state human-service agencies and programs like the WIC nutrition program. Some find out about Healthy Families when they receive related services, such as the Healthy Families partnership with the
which provides free Pack n’ Plays and sleep-safety tips to eligible new parents.
Others, like Kiyee, are self-referred.
Although Justice’s dad is actively involved in his son’s upbringing, Kiyee says she still had many concerns as a new, busy mother who also works full time and is studying to get her real estate license.
One was the depression she felt after giving birth, as she adjusted to the many demands of caring for a newborn as well as the changes in her body.
“I didn’t know I would go through postpartum,” Kiyee says. “I don’t know if people ever spoke to me about it before.”
When DeWitt suggested Kiyee might have postpartum depression, the first-time mother realized she was experiencing a mood shift
. Kiyee says she learned to ask for more help from Justice’s dad so she could occasionally rest and have a little “me time.”
DeWitt also helped Kiyee establish more positive structure with Justice, such as a consistent bedtime routine — a ritual that was new to her. “I wasn’t raised with a bedtime routine or a morning routine,” Kiyee says.
But as she guided her son through the steps — preparing for a bath or shower, picking out PJs, brushing teeth and reading a bedtime routine — she saw that he loved the new routine they’d established together.
“It’s not going to be so hard for him to get up in the morning and go to bed at night,” she says. Maybe he can teach it to his children as he grows up as well.”
To learn more about Healthy Families, go to