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Cooperative President & CEO, Chief Clinical Officer Featured in NJ Spotlight News on Importance of Family Connects NJ

Optimism about new approach to addressing poor maternal and infant health in the region


NJ Spotlight News - April 12, 2024 - Cumberland County is one of New Jersey’s most culturally diverse communities, featuring a unique landscape of rural and urban settings. The county’s landscape and agriculture demonstrate why New Jersey is the Garden State. The county includes Vineland, New Jersey’s largest city by land area, and some of the state’s least populated ZIP codes. However, Cumberland County also has the distinction of being known as the unhealthiest of all 21 counties in the state. 

Residents face poverty and lack of access to basic resources based on the rural geography and few economic opportunities in the area. These issues are especially difficult for pregnant residents and those with young children who must travel long distances to access care and often miss important preventive care appointments during and after pregnancy. 

As the state-licensed maternal and child health consortium for the seven southern counties of New Jersey, the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative is committed to implementing programs to address these health care disparities.  

It is the work of the Cooperative, in partnership with health care and community organizations, to address striking disparities and poor health trends. Cumberland County has the highest fetal mortality rate in the South Jersey region, the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state and high percentages of chronic health conditions that lead to poor birth outcomes, which include preterm birth and maternal illness and death. 

A newly unveiled approach to addressing and improving conditions is a universal home-visiting program. 

The New Jersey Department of Children and Families rolled out Family Connects NJ, a free and voluntary evidence-based program available to all, with no limits to access based on insurance, income or immigration status. The program offers home visits by specially trained nurses to check the health of mom and baby, screen for potential complications, answer questions and address any unexpected changes the family may be experiencing during the first two weeks after delivery.  

Cumberland and Gloucester counties

The Department of Children and Families selected Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative to pioneer Family Connects NJ in Cumberland County and in neighboring Gloucester County, where residents have poor health outcomes despite greater access to care. 

Already, our nurses are helping patients remove some barriers to care, including lack of transportation. Our nurses also inquire about scheduling routine follow-up postpartum and pediatric appointments. If families identify any concerns or delays accessing those critical appointments, Family Connects NJ nurses coordinate assistance to ensure the appointments are kept and completed.    

Meeting community members in their neighborhoods, knowing bus routes and fostering cultural humility are all essential steps required for gaining the trust of families who we currently serve and hope to serve as Family Connects NJ expands. 

The Cooperative’s boots-on-the-ground approach includes a staff presence in WIC offices and other family success and resource centers, creating critical touchpoints with patients. Most notably, having multiple Family Connects NJ team members who are bilingual and who represent the families being served is essential to establishing trust and confidence. Providing services to areas that have historically been disenfranchised was also a consideration and emphasized the need for more in-person engagement.  

No one in South Jersey is better trained and equipped to implement the Family Connects NJ program than The Cooperative’s skilled nursing professionals. No one is more invested in effecting better outcomes than the staff of the Cooperative. All families deserve equal access to care. If they can’t get to the care they need, we’re committed to bringing top-level care to them.  

Helen Hannigan, MGA, of Haddonfield is president and CEO of Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative.

Jennie Sherlock-Loeb, MSN, RNC-OB, of Medford Township, is chief clinical officer of Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative.

Read the op-ed as published in NJ Spotlight News here.

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