Florida lawmakers have rejected more than $50 million in federal child-abuse prevention money. The grants were tied to the Obama administration’s healthcare reform package, which many lawmakers oppose on philosophical grounds.
The money, offered through the federal Affordable Health Care Act passed last year, would have paid, among other things, for a visiting nurse program run by Healthy Families Florida, one of the most successful child-abuse prevention efforts in the nation. Healthy Families’ budget was cut in last year’s spending plan by close to $10 million.
And because the federal Race to the Top educational-reform effort is tied to the child-abuse prevention program that Healthy Families administers, the state may also lose a four-year block grant worth an additional $100 million in federal dollars, records show.
“This is just crazy,” said Gwen Wurm, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami, and a board member of the Our Kids foster care agency. “This is the model for what you want in a prevention program. They have proven results.”
Healthy Families, which started with a $10 million budget in 1998, provides trained home visitors — many of whom are nurses — to work with young parents who, based on a questionnaire filled out at child birth, are deemed at risk of abusing or neglecting their children. The visitors offer guidance on everything from healthy eating habits and early childhood development to recognizing safety hazards, such as pools and sweltering, sealed automobiles.
Wurm said the model is particularly effective because it is hands-on and offers parents concrete advice on how to care for their kids — not just a laundry list of things they shouldn’t do. “If I just tell you, ‘Do not shake your baby,’ and your baby is still screaming, I have not solved your problem,” Wurm said. “They are not just telling parents what not to do.”
Richard Gelles, dean of the Department of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, said prevention models such as Healthy Families have been the most successful in the country in preventing child abuse and encouraging appropriate child development — but also saving states millions of dollars down the line in costs associated with foster care, delinquency and healthcare.
The most recent year the program was studied, budget year 2010, 95 percent of the parents who participated avoided any verified reports of child abuse or neglect within a year of completing the program, records show. Almost two-thirds of the parents who were unemployed when they entered the program had found a job by the time they completed it.
Healthy Families has seldom enjoyed wide support within Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature.
From budget year 2010 to budget year 2011, lawmakers cut the program’s spending plan from $28 million to $18 million, including $2 million in non-recurring dollars added late in the process. Administrators estimated the cuts would translate to a reduction in services from 12,099 families and 20,919 children to 8,130 families and 13,821 children.
State Sen. Joe Negron, who chairs his chamber’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he long has been philosophically opposed to Healthy Families, which he views as an intrusion into the private lives of parents.
“I believe in providing basic information to parents at hospitals and medical settings,” said Negron, a Palm City Republican. “I am not persuaded that it is a good idea to show up at a family’s home year after year giving advice and guidance. I do not think that is a core, essential function of government.”
Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is vice chairwoman of Negron’s appropriations subcommittee and sits on the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the decision to forego the funding ultimately will hurt children. Most other states have capitalized on the federal grants, Rich said, and failing to do so means Florida taxpayers will get fewer healthcare dollars than taxpayers elsewhere.
On Wednesday, leaders of the state House and Senate and the governor’s office all insisted they had nothing to do with rejecting the money.
“The grant was included in [the state Department of Health’s] legislative budget request, but beyond that, the executive branch never advocated for it and a budget amendment was not submitted,” said Katherine Betta, spokeswoman for Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said Scott did ask for the money. Burgess produced a budget request that has the proposal. “If there is to be finger-pointing,” he said, “it should be directed elsewhere.”
Herald political reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report.