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When he was an officer on the beat, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank found three kids fending for themselves in a motel.

Officers took the children away from their mother, who was so desperate to support the family that she had become a prostitute, but she got them back. Burbank found the same kids alone two other times and again they were taken away and returned to their mother in what became a vicious cycle.

On Tuesday, Burbank joined other law enforcement leaders in urging Congress to extend federal funding of home visiting programs designed to reduce child abuse and neglect — including the kind that he witnessed. By preventing abuse and neglect, the programs help prevent crime, the chief said.

Burbank is one of more than 1,000 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors — 65 of them from Utah — who have signed a letter urging Congress to renew the Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program.

MIECHV provides money for programs that bring nurses or other trained mentors into women's homes to help them understand their children's emotional needs; make their home safe for kids; and respond appropriately to stressful parenting situations.

The home visiting effort is aimed at expectant and new mothers who live in poverty. Participation is voluntary.

Utah has three programs that get funds through MIECHV.

Congress established the program in 2010 and authorized a total of $1.5 billion for a five-year period. Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, who will become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in January, will play an important role in deciding on renewal.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, wants to keep the mothers and their children out of the justice system and on the right path. Renewing the home visiting program is vital, the group says, because of the 600 percent increase in the incarceration of women during the past three decades.

The jump translates into 200,000 women currently behind bars nationwide, and almost two-thirds of those in state prisons are mothers, according to "Orange is Not Your Color," a new report by Fight Crime.

Almost 1 million women in the United States are on probation or parole. The figures for Utah are about 600 in prison and more than 4,000 on probation or parole.

Jeff Kirsch, a Fight Crime vice president, called home visiting "preventative law enforcement" that provides support to the most vulnerable mothers.

And Kami Peterson, the nurse supervisor for the Salt Lake County Health Department's Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), which receives some MIECHV funding, said the program is a good investment. She cited a 15-year-old mother who finished high school and become the first member of her family to go to college and a mom who was able to find safe, stable housing.

According to "Orange is Not Your Color," a study of the NFP program in New York showed that mothers who did not receive home visits had more than three times as many criminal convictions 15 years after the program began than mothers who participated. In addition, the daughters of the non-participating moms had nine times more convictions by the time they were 19 than the girls whose mothers took part in the program.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill pointed out that the average savings from improved children's health and reduced crime after subtracting the program's cost is about $17,000 per family.

"We'd all rather see young women in caps and gowns than in orange jumpsuits," Gill said.

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC