Home visits in early childhood involve trained personnel (known as health visitors in the UK) visiting the home of parents with children within the first two years of the child’s life.
Visits can begin during pregnancy or after the birth, and visitors provide information about child care, children’s health and development, and parental training.
The visitors offer support to the parents and often deliver a combination of services. While home visits are universal in the UK, they are not in the USA, where they are often targeted at specific population groups, such as parents on low incomes, ethnic minorities, young and first-time mothers, and those with lower educational achievements. Homes where mothers and children are believed to be at risk of abuse are also specifically targeted.
This narrative summary is based on two systematic reviews: Review 1 covering 26 studies and Review 2 covering six studies. The narrative is primarily based on Review 1 with Review 2 contributing additional evidence to the effect and mechanism sections. The majority of the individual studies included in the reviews were based on evidence from the USA, with additional studies from the Netherlands (2) and Australia (2).
The focus of this narrative is on the effect of home visiting on child abuse and neglect, violence by children in later life and domestic violence between parents.
Overall, the evidence suggests that home visits in early childhood have reduced crime. The specific outcomes covered by the reviews are child abuse and neglect, violence by children in later life, and domestic violence between parents.
The findings of the meta-analysis in Review 1 (covering 20 studies) suggested that, on average, rates/incidents of abuse and neglect were 39% lower for those children whose families received early childhood home visits compared to those families who did not.
Review 1 reported that two individual studies found that children in families which received home visits in early childhood reported significantly lower levels of convictions, self-reported arrests and numbers of individuals processed through the probation system in later life compared to children whose families did not have home visits. A further two studies found evidence of no effect of early childhood home visits for children’s violence in later life.
One study in Review 1 and three studies in Review 2 found that early childhood home visits reduced domestic violence and abuse between parents compared to parents in families who did not receive home visits. A further three studies in Review 2 found no evidence of effect of home visiting on domestic violence and abuse between parents.
After analysing the effect sizes of studies measuring child abuse and neglect, the authors of Review 1 found that studies of higher methodological quality had significantly smaller effect sizes than lower quality studies: higher quality study designs (i.e. studies with random allocation of participants to groups) saw an average reduction of 27.5%, while those of lesser quality, without randomised allocations, saw a much higher average reduction of 68.3%.
Although Review 1 was systematic, some forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions remain.
Review 1 had a well-designed search strategy and statistically analysed differences in the effect size between different study designs. However, the review did not take into account potential issues with publication bias, statistical dependency or weighting by size of the study sample.
Although Review 2 was systematic, many forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions remain.
Review 2 undertook an assessment of the risk of bias in the primary studies and considered the validity of the outcome constructs. However, due to the heterogeneity of the outcome measures a meta-analysis was not carried out.
Reviews 1 and 2 suggested a number of ways in which home visits in early childhood may reduce crime.
Review 1 suggested that human ecology theory (which stresses the importance of the home environment of a child for their development) and attachment theory (stresses the importance of the child-parent bond) may explain how home visits may reduce child neglect and parental violence. By increasing parents’ self-confidence, knowledge and skills, early childhood home visits are believed to improve the environment in which children are raised, and improve positive attachment to the parents. Giving parents knowledge and resources is believed to help improve child development, skills and health and well-being, leading to less violence being perpetrated by, or against, members of the household.
Review 2 suggested that early childhood home visits create opportunities to reach women experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Home visits targeted at such mothers are presumed to support positive parental relationships and help children to cope with the negative effects of witnessing domestic violence and abuse between their parents.
However, neither Review analysed or tested these assumptions.
Review 1 presented and tested a number of contextual factors that might have influenced the effect of early childhood home visits. Home visits in early childhood appeared to be more successful for households with low socio-economic status. The type of person who visited the home to provide help and information to parents was also found to have an impact upon the effectiveness of the intervention. Programmes which used nurses (47.8% decrease) and mental health workers (44.5% decrease) saw significantly larger decreases in crime (child abuse, neglect and domestic abuse between parents) than those which used paraprofessionals (those who are trained to assist professionals but do not hold professional licenses) (17.7% decrease). It was also found that programmes of a longer duration (of two years or more) showed significantly larger decreases in crime than those which were shorter.
Multi-component programmes which involved both pre-natal and post-natal visits showed significantly higher decreases in crime (74.3% reductions) than those which were post-natal only (20.9% reductions).
Review 1 noted that early childhood home visits are universally offered in the UK but in the USA, where the studies from the review were conducted, visits are targeted on at risk groups.
Targeted populations included teenage parents, single mothers, families of low socio-economic status, families with very low birth-weight infants, parents previously investigated for child maltreatment, and parents with alcohol, drug, or mental health problems. In the U.S., programme components may include one or more of the following: training of parent(s) in prenatal and infant care; training in parenting to prevent child abuse and neglect; developmental interaction with infants and toddlers; family planning assistance; development of problem-solving and life skills; educational and work opportunities; and linkage with community services.
Home visit programmes may be accompanied by the provision of day care; parent group meetings for support and/or instruction; and advocacy.
Review 1 noted that barriers to successful implementation of programmes include the recruitment, training and retention of visitors due to low pay and difficult working conditions. Paraprofessional visitors may also require more training and supervision than professionals.
Where information about the cost of the intervention was reported in the primary studies, this was highlighted within Review 1, but no cost/benefit analysis was conducted as the relevant information was not available.
For one study the direct costs of nurse visits for 2 years was $6,286 per family in 1997. Another study from the same year reported average programme costs of $958 per family. The review mentioned one cost-benefit study which found a benefit of $350.61 per low income family. However, for the whole sample, which also included families of medium and high income, they found a cost of $3,081 per family rather than an overall benefit.
Overall, the evidence suggested that home visits in early childhood have reduced child abuse and neglect, violence by children in later life, and domestic violence between parents. The reviews suggested that the use of home visits encourages self-confidence, knowledge, skill, and a positive personal relationship between parents thus providing a stable home environment for children.
Home visits in early childhood appeared to be more successful for households with low socio-economic status. Programmes which used nurses and mental health workers were found to be more effective than programmes which used paraprofessionals. Further, programmes which included pre-natal and post-natal visits were more effective than those that only include post-natal visits.
It was also noted that early childhood home visits are universally offered in the UK but in the USA, where the studies from the review were conducted, visits are targeted on at risk groups. Barriers to successful implementation of programmes include the recruitment, training and retention of visitors due to low pay and difficult working conditions.
Review 1: Bilukha, O., Hahn, R. A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M. T., Liberman, A., Moscicki, E., Snyder, S., Tuma, F., Corso, P., Schofield, A. and Briss, P. A. (2005) 'The Effectiveness of Early Childhood Home Visitation in Preventing Violence: A Systematic Review', American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2005:28(2S1), 11-39
Review 2: Prosman, GJ., Lo Fo Wong, S.H., Van Der Wouden, J.C., Lagro-Janssen, A.L.M. (2016) 'Effectiveness of home visiting in reducing partner violence for families experiencing abuse: a systematic review', Family Practice, 32(3), pp. 247-256.
This narrative was prepared by UCL Jill Dando Institute and was co-funded by the College of Policing and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.
Updated on 20/12/2017