MUSCATINE — Barrett Colon is 10-months old, with brown eyes that are as big as they are wide. He doesn't miss a thing. His mom, Samantha Kerr, said that raising Barrett has been difficult.

“My day-to-day life is busy,” Kerr said. “Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I have school.” She is studying to be a nurse. “The rest of the week I’m working at the Y. Then there is, of course, mothering.”

While they were busy making chicken nuggets for lunch Wednesday, Kerr and her boyfriend, Joe Colon, were visited by U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, who was in Muscatine visiting Lutheran Services in Iowa.

To give Ernst a sense of what LSI’s home visits are like for the 90 families served in the area, Ernst sat in on a mock-home visit with Kerr's case worker, Cheyenne Driscoll, a family support specialist with LSI.

“This morning we really got to touch on the issues and long term benefits of doing these visits,” Driscoll said. “We got to talk about all the barriers to coming into these homes and all the barriers that families face. (Barriers) like transportation.”

Driscoll walked through the developmental checks she normally would. At 10-months, Barrett should be able to stand with the assistance of furniture. And with a little assistance, Barrett was standing, meeting the developmental benchmark. Caseworkers like Driscoll are there to answer questions, share information and provide support to help parents, often young parents, raise their children.

“I just wanted (Ernst) to know for sure how our meetings go,” Kerr said. “The (early childhood) program has helped me learn where Barrett should be (developmentally). (Driscoll) is always bringing books. I struggle with reading every day, but I know from these visits how important it is to read to them.”

Kerr explained that Driscoll also has helped her. Kerr and Colon aren't married, so she could not enroll on his workplace health insurance. And Kerr had trouble figuring out the language on the Medicaid forms.

“The way they have it set up can sometimes be confusing, like with the questions and all the information that they need,” Kerr said. “Cheyenne was really helpful with walking me through it all.”

The home visits receive partial funding through the Maternal Early Childhood Sustained Home-Visiting Program (MECSH). The State of Iowa has funded home visits since 1992 and the MECSH program gave additional federal funding to evidence based early childhood home visiting services. Based on an Australian model, the program targets disadvantaged, pregnant women at risk for adverse maternal or child health and developmental outcomes.

"Sometimes people just feel isolated,” said Nancy Krause, early childhood director at LSI. “They don't have a lot of family support, so it's those things that become stressful for people to raise kids.”

In February, Ernst was among the senators who voted to reauthorize the MECSH program for another five years. 

“We are looking at ways that we can provide those supportive steps to new families,” Ernst said during her press availability. “Maybe they are new families. Maybe they have had some hard knocks in life. Getting off on a good foot is really important. If there are ways that we can get young Barrett off to a good start in life, provide those support to his parents, it is really important. They will be able to engage more in school activities and that's what we want to see. I'm excited about it.

Ernst emphasized the need for the county to look for safety nets; programs that work to empower and support parents.

“We see poverty and the effects of poverty all across the United States,” Ernst said. “What we see is that a lot of families will experience a cliff, where if they earn a little bit more, they lose all of their supports. We don't want that to happen. That doesn't encourage people to move up out of poverty or do better. If we can provide a sliding scale through the state so they are not losing all of their assistance, our families will be so much better off.”