Just months after Gov. Spencer Cox’s new Office of Families began operating with a three-quarters-time staff of one and lofty ideals about how policies can strengthen Utah families, the state has expanded its home visiting program for vulnerable families, passed social media restrictions designed to protect kids and funded a state child tax credit for families with very young children.

There’s a lot more to do, according to Aimee Winder Newton, who directs the office and is its sole staffer. She is a senior adviser to the governor, tasked with suggesting policies or helping figure out the best approach to those Cox suggests, as well as researching challenges, supporting others’ efforts and convening key players to get things done.

She said the office has five initial focus areas:

  • Providing support to vulnerable families with children from birth to age 3.
  • Bolstering the supply of child care to ensure residents who need it can find it while preserving the option to have a parent stay home with the kids.
  • Tackling youth mental health issues.
  • Helping young adults launch successfully.
  • Promoting family-friendly workplace policies.

Future areas of focus include promoting the benefits of marriage, strengthening fatherhood, boosting parenting resources and supporting women with unwanted pregnancies.

Why a family-focused office?

During his State of the State address in early 2022, Cox announced plans to create a special office focused on family issues and family policy. Stronger families create better outcomes for children, he said, noting that sometimes means state government should get involved and other times it should get out of the way.

The Utah Legislature funded a position, and a hiring committee was formed. Winder Newton, who also chairs the Salt Lake County Council, said her hiring gave her “the dream job I never knew I wanted. It’s been really rewarding to be able to work on family policy and look at ways we can strengthen families.”

Three weeks into the job, she presented Cox with a list of 22 items, including four recommended priorities. Together, they expanded the smaller list to eight.

First, they tackled expanding existing home visiting programs to households with newborn and young children, which had proven to be very valuable but were only funded to serve about 600 families in Utah each year. “I think a lot of us take for granted that it’s easy to parent a new baby, and it’s not,” said Winder Newton. “It’s not easy for any of us.”

Outcomes for littles as they grow are notably better when abuse and childhood trauma are prevented. Stability matters. And helping parents build skills is key to ensuring kids thrive.

Core funding comes from the federal Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting program, which gives states, territories and tribes support for evidence-based home visits from before birth through kindergarten. In Utah, the money goes through the Department of Health and Human Services, where it is funneled to county health departments or programs like Prevent Child Abuse Utah to contract with providers who deploy the home visitors.

In a video, Cox explained the value of the program and why expanding it was a family-friendly state priority he included in his budget proposal: “Our goal is for every child in Utah to have plenty of opportunities and the ability to thrive. We also know that proactive approaches to supporting children and families are much less expensive — and we pay millions of dollars later in social services when children don’t have the support they need.“

Such programs, he said, drastically improve outcomes for children. “For every dollar we spend, we save up to $5.70 in cost later on. These home visits take place with a nurse or another professional who checks in on the family. They assess growth, development of the baby, safety in the home,” and the mother’s mental health.

Cox said home-visiting programs make it much more likely kids will finish high school with honors and that a mom’s parenting skills, mental health and ability to manage challenges as they arise will improve. Meanwhile, kids have better cognitive and academic outcomes.

The Legislature provided $15 million over three years in one-time funding to expand the program and Winder Newton and state Health and Human Services staff are drafting the request for proposals to recruit home visitors to meet families’ needs, knowing that will vary from more intensive help to a simple check-in, she said. The goal is “to get a really good mix of stakeholders to get this done for us and help us see how we can serve more families with limited dollars,” said Winder Newton.

The benefits of such programs, she added, are big — ranging from making it more likely parents will get jobs that pay well to reducing the number of low-birthweight infants, from reducing abuse and neglect to helping families create “more developmentally stimulating homes,” among others.

Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser to the governor and director of Utah’s Office of Families, poses for a portrait at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on April 3, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Who’s watching the kids?

Working with the Office of Child Care, the state and the Office of Families have helped increase the number of facilities and their capacity. But while providers hope Utah will subsidize care when pandemic-boosted help expires, Winder Newton said Utah isn’t inclined to do so.

Utah would rather put money into a child tax credit that benefits more people, she said.

A workplace survey by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah asked two-parent and guardian households what their ideal child care/work balance would be and 43% answered a full-time worker and a stay-at-home parent, though just one-third say they can do that right now. Another third said a full-time worker and a part-time worker. Just 17% said ideally two parents in a household should work full time, though 37% said that does describe their situation. Further, when kids are not in school, 81% of parents said being cared for by a parent, guardian or stepparent is best for kids.

So Cox and Winder Newton support a tax credit for families with children under 6, which lets parents choose whether to spend the money on child care or something else. The Legislature passed the child tax credit this year in HB170, sponsored by Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, but reduced the amount to $10 million, so instead of reaching those with children from birth to 5, it will help those with kids ages 1 through 3. “Since we have a double exemption for new babies,” Winder Newton said, “they decided to start at age 1 for this one.”

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Other solutions for child care include promoting business and workplace solutions like onsite or nearby child care, stipends and flexible working hours and location for working parents, as well as increasing the supply of child care providers and their capacity.

“We think our employers may need to step up. It’s going to help them attract a good workforce, and certainly a lot of them here in the state recognize that high quality child care is a benefit their employees are interested in,” Winder Newton said.

She added that the federal government provides some child care funding for low-income families. “There are really good benefits right now for child care. ... So from a state perspective, we believe the tax credit makes more sense.”

Youth mental health

The Legislature passed two bills — SB152 and HB311 — aimed at protecting youth mental health by adding some restrictions to social media use. Without parental permission, children can’t get a social media account. And unless parents allow use by children between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., it’s banned, as inadequate sleep also poses mental health challenges. The rules also bar use of addiction-causing algorithms, set up mechanisms to punish social media companies for infractions and more.

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The state plans to launch an information campaign about risks to youth mental health. And it hopes parents will realize that their own social media use can be problematic for their children, Winder Newton said.

Other priorities

To help young adults launch, Utah hopes to ensure that youths graduate from high school — the first step in Brookings Institution’s “success sequence.” The next steps — which must be completed in order — are getting full-time work, then marrying before having children. Proponents say those steps in the right order equal a 97% chance of not being impoverished.

“We want to ensure every student is able to graduate from high school and then can engage in the workforce, so I’m working with the governor’s education adviser on that and we’ve been talking to stakeholders, school districts, counties and different people involved in this work to try to bring people together, break the silos and ensure we have great ideas and can provide support as needed,” said Winder Newton.

She told the Deseret News work promoting post-high school education doesn’t focus solely on college, but embraces apprenticeships and other ways to nudge young people down productive paths.

Family-friendly workforce policies are of great benefit to Utahns, said Winder Newton. Her list includes parental leave for moms and dads, flexible hybrid schedules and day care options, among others.

She hasn’t done much on workforce policies, “but we’ve started some of the conversations and this is kind of another direction that we’re going.”

They did a little already during the legislative session to help women with unwanted pregnancies, including stretching postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months. “And we recognize there’s more we can do there, as well,” she said.

“I think the more we can be authentic about some of the challenges our families face and the ways that we can learn from each other and help each other, the more successful that we will be,” Winder Newton added.