By Mona Shand Missouri News Service

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - The clock is ticking on federal funding that helps struggling parents with young children.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program expires in March, unless Congress takes action.

A coalition of 750 organizations and elected leaders has sent a letter asking that the program continue as it has for decades.

Karen Howard, vice president of early childhood policy at First Focus Campaign for Children, explains the home visiting idea began about 40 years ago, and research has shown that voluntary home visits, usually conducted by nurses or social workers, can prevent serious problems and learning deficits.

"And is a real effective strategy for particularly low-income families and women, building up their knowledge base and their self-esteem so that they can be capable parents," she adds.

There's also a payoff. Howard points to a RAND Corporation report that found home-visiting programs saved up to around $6 for every dollar invested.

Howard points out many parents are very young, experienced abuse or neglect as children, are disconnected from their parents or have aged out of the foster system.

The home-visiting professionals offer nonjudgmental support.

"Having someone who is your mentor, coach, health advocate, and helping you to cope, and helping you to feel like you can be successful in this new role," Howard explains.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, Prevent Child Abuse America and The Salvation Army are among the national organizations that signed the letter.

Funding has been at about $400 million a year.