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November 17, 2002

'Healthy Families' Vulnerable in Budget Battle

From: Washington Post
Nov. 17, 2002

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002; Page C01

James and Janet Byrne knew they were facing a major challenge when their first child was born five years ago. James has cerebral palsy and is hearing-impaired. Janet is completely deaf.

"Would my hearing child be able to understand deaf parents?" James Byrne said he wondered when the couple's son, John, arrived.

Help came from Healthy Families Virginia, which enrolled the couple in its program of weekly home visits and referred James Byrne to an anger-management course at a local mental health center to deal with frustrations stemming from his disabilities and work-related stress. The $15 million Healthy Families program, a public-private partnership that has 36 sites around the state, is aimed mainly at preventing child abuse and neglect by helping its clients -- mainly single mothers -- become better parents. It also serves as a safety net for new parents with disabilities.

On Tuesday, as program officials, social workers and local elected leaders looked on, Virginia first lady Lisa Collis awarded the Byrne family -- which now includes 9-month-old Louise -- a certificate as the first to complete the five-year Healthy Families program in the Mount Vernon area, one of four Fairfax County locations where it is offered.

How many more of the state's more than 4,000 enrolled families will graduate is anybody's guess. After rescuing the program last year from budget cuts planned by then-governor James S. Gilmore III (R), Healthy Families advocates are worried that it could again land on the chopping block.

To save money, Virginia has replaced its $3.7 million annual contribution to the program with federal welfare funds, a move that eliminates the state's ability to obtain federal matching grants. The federal welfare funding is scheduled to run out after next fiscal year, possibly earlier if the slumping economy expands the welfare rolls, advocates said.

"It's a nervous time for us," said Johanna Schuchert, director of Healthy Families Virginia. Although the program so far has survived in the budget plans of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), "we know that another billion dollars has to be cut," she said. "And when the General Assembly session comes, all the money will be up for grabs again."

Like other prevention programs, Healthy Families "is extremely vulnerable," said Mary Agee, president of Northern Virginia Family Service, a charity that helps administer the program locally. "Most of our health and human services that are not mandated are being looked at very closely, given the seriousness of the budget cuts. . . . It's just a tragic situation to be facing these choices."

If the state decides it must divert the federal welfare money, Healthy Families would have to close half its 36 sites and reduce services at the rest by 25 to 75 percent, Schuchert said. More than 1,000 families would lose services, and at least 100 staff members would be out of jobs, she said.

In Northern Virginia -- where 1,420 families are enrolled at program sites in Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties plus Alexandria -- more than 430 families would have to be dropped from the program's home-visiting services if the state's contribution of federal dollars ended, Schuchert said.

Social workers say the program is effective in preventing child abuse. According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, the incidence of child abuse and neglect has risen 42 percent in the past decade. In its latest report two years ago, the department documented more than 8,200 confirmed victims of child abuse in a one-year period, including 35 children who died as a result.

"In Virginia and across the country, victims of child abuse are more likely to engage in criminality later in life," Joseph Galano, a psychology professor at the College of William and Mary, told a congressional hearing last year. He cited studies showing that more than two-thirds of youths who are arrested have a history of child abuse or neglect. More broadly, abused or neglected children are at higher risk for mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, school failure, violence and serious physical illness, he reported.

Preventing such behavior can save the public enormous costs of investigations, foster care, treatment, juvenile services, residential placements, special education and incarceration, as well as savings from averted criminal acts, Galano said. A study in Oregon found that a program there similar to Healthy Families yielded lifetime savings of about $125,000 per participant, he said.

Yet, in severe budget-cutting times, "prevention programs are always more at risk" because the payoffs are not immediately visible, Agee said, adding, "I'm not sure everyone fully understands the long-term investment."

In Virginia's latest round of state cuts for community substance abuse programs, for example, prevention services take some of the biggest hits: more than $945,000 this year and next.

Having Virginia's first lady as a major patron of Healthy Families "certainly doesn't hurt" the program's budget chances, but neither does it guarantee that the governor or the legislature won't cut it, said state Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who attended Tuesday's ceremony. "Maybe we'll have to count on some pillow talk," she said.

Collis said her husband "is well aware of my commitment to this program, and he believes in prevention programs."

Janet Byrne, 39, a supervisor at Gallaudet University in the District, said the program "helped me understand how to raise my children and communicate with my hearing son." Among the lessons: "How to discipline a child without spanking," she said through a sign-language interpreter.

"It's a great program that benefits a lot of families with special needs," said James Byrne, 40, a computer technician at the Pentagon. "I hope this program will continue . . . not just for me, but for other families as well."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company