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Minnesota tribes adopt home visits

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BEMIDJI — A new program is being introduced to area tribes through the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Family Spirit is an American Indian program designed by American Indians that has proven successful in other states to support new parents. The program includes tribal health staff, many of whom are American Indian themselves, who support young parents with 63 lessons to be taught from pregnancy up to the child’s third birthday.

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American Indian babies die in the first year of life at twice the rate of white babies, according to the MDH. While infant mortality rates for all groups have declined, the disparity in rates has existed for more than 20 years.

Family Spirit is more flexible than other home visiting approaches and encourages home visitors to consider American Indian beliefs and cultural traditions when educating clients and asking them for information, according to Karla Decker Sorby, MDH tribal nurse consultant.

In mainstream home visiting programs, she said, it would not have been acceptable to use “smudging,” the burning of tobacco, cedar, sage or other materials during home visits. But the Family Spirit curriculum makes room for such traditions.

“It is a ceremony that is cleansing and healing and is often done when dealing with difficult issues or seeking good influences,” Decker Sorby said.

Minnesota tribes and organizations participating in the Family Spirit training include Red Lake, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Lower Sioux, Mille Lacs and Mewinzha Ondaadiziike Wiigamig.

Family Spirit is designed as a home visiting program, but the curriculum can be delivered in other venues as well, such as clinics, schools or in group settings.

Family Spirit also encourages a culturally sensitive style of conversation. For example, instead of starting by asking a mom whether she smokes or uses other substances, the training encourages the visitor to ask the client if she feels drugs and alcohol may negatively affect her community.

“Reservation members tend to have strong ties to their community,” Decker Sorby said in the release. “So starting the conversation by talking about the community is respectful and also opens the door for young moms to start talking about the problem of substance abuse in and outside of their families.”

Training sessions are underway and home visits are expected to begin this spring.

The program is flexible and participants can be enrolled at any point, from early pregnancy until the child’s third birthday, though the goal is to see families throughout that entire period.

The Family Spirit program is being offered by other tribes in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Washington. Researchers studying family spirit initiatives have found the program has increased parenting knowledge and involvement; decreased maternal depression; increased home safety; and decreased substance use in both pregnant and parenting women. It has been used around the nation with more than 2,500 Native American families.

Starting in 1995, Family Spirit was designed and rigorously evaluated by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in partnership with the Navajo, White Mountain and San Carlos Apache communities.

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