Since becoming a social worker in 1986, Karla Jackson has worked with many types of families.
“Sometimes they’re single mothers, sometimes single mothers that have nobody else,” Jackson says. “I’ve literally had moms give birth in the hospital and have had to take a taxi cab home because there’s nobody in their family to come pick them up.”
In 2007, Jackson transitioned from working at a children's mental health clinic to her current title as a home visitor, where she helps make birth and parenthood easier and healthier for all involved, from pregnancy to 3 years old.
As a high-risk prenatal and postnatal social worker for the Healthy Families program with Columbia Boone County Public Health, Jackson works mostly with at-risk families, meeting people who are first-time parents, unhoused, living in their cars, have a history of abuse or neglect, or actively using drugs. They’re often too focused on getting their basic needs met to do things like attend appointments.
Jackson, mother of two, also knows how chaotic yet rewarding raising children can be. She understands how a new parent feels when their baby wakes up and won't fall back asleep, especially if the parent is alone.
“Having kids will make you feel like the most incompetent person in the whole world at moments,” Jackson says. “It’s the best, most rewarding job in the world, but it can also be so overwhelming.”
During home visits, Jackson brings supplies that work to meet parents’ needs and keep their child or children on track to develop properly. These could be safety items such as car seats, sippy cups, highchairs, hygiene products like diapers and wipes, nursing pillows for breastfeeding or foam pads for floors so babies can have tummy time to build core muscles for crawling.
However, it’s not all about the child, Jackson says. It’s about the family as a whole. Along with supplies, Jackson provides parents with information and guidance on parenting and navigating everyday life with a child at home. Jackson encourages caregivers to get into a routine of reading to their child.
“I’m a big book pusher,” Jackson says. One study by The Ohio State University found that children whose parents read books daily to them have heard 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to.
To make sure the child grows up in a healthy home environment, Jackson screens parents and other family members to monitor developmental issues and track relationship dynamics. She also serves as a parent’s advocate, such as being there with expecting mothers at doctors’ appointments and hospital visits.
Having someone there to be an advocate can not only help during the pregnancy but afterward as well, says MU Health Care OB-GYN Dr. Courtney Barnes. As a pre and postnatal care provider, she’s adopted a group support approach so mothers can go through pregnancy and raising a baby together.
“They’re helping each other out," Barnes says. "They’re Facebooking each other in the middle of the night saying, ‘Anybody else up with a cranky baby?’” Barnes explains that group support has been shown to decrease health risks during pregnancy and birth, improve breastfeeding outcomes and reduce postpartum depression. “It’s powerful what these ladies do for each other,” Barnes says.
Jackson has also helped parents navigate social services, which Jackson says can be a nightmare to deal with. It can take 100 days, for example, to get approved for Medicaid.
The Missouri Children's Division Child Abuse/Neglect 2021 fiscal year report stated that a total of 62,436 children were involved in one or more reports of abuse. According to the National Library of Medicine, parenting styles are passed down between generations. Jackson hopes she can help end the cycle of abuse, neglect and negative childhood experiences so those patterns aren’t repeated.
“It can be a real generational thing,” Jackson says. “Hopefully, they’ll have a better childhood experience, and they will be able to give that to their own babies when they grow up.”