Special Reports

In-home parent program threatened

MANATEE — An in-home parenting program for at-risk families could end as early as next week because of a state funding shortage, the Family Partnership Center announced Wednesday.

“These are families court-ordered to complete a parenting course because a judge has determined that the parents have problems but the situation does not call for removing the children from the home,” said Dave Potter, the partnership’s executive director.

The loss of the Parent Partner program comes at the worst time for the 65 families and more than 100 children served, said Barbara Brownell, the partnership’s program director.

As the recession deepens, at-risk families, who don’t know how to handle their children in the best of times, are under more stress than usual as money problems escalate, Brownell’s staff reports.

“The stress level is huge,” Brownell said. “These are people who don’t have coping skills. Many were abused themselves as children. They don’t know how to handle the stress, and they take it out on the kids.”

All the more reason, Brownell believes, why the in-home parenting program must continue.

“This is court-ordered intervention,” she said. “We get right in there and work with the family, modeling the good parenting skills as we interact with the children.”

The partnership is to receive $200,000 in federal funds to provide the in-home counseling program. The money is passed down through the Department of Children and Families to the Sarasota YMCA, which oversees the Safe Children Coalition that handles foster care for Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

But not all of that money has been received. The state placed a portion of the coalition’s budget on hold as it reexamined statewide budget cuts, said Kevin McKenney, coalition spokesman.

While the state has lifted the hold, the money has not been received due to the state’s budget crisis, McKenney said. Moreover, the coalition has been asked to provide figures on how it would further cut next year’s budget by 15 percent.

The coalition is considering redirecting remaining funds in this year’s contract with the partnership to a classroom-based parenting program. Brownell is not happy with that solution.

“Many of these families work two jobs,” Brownell said. “It would be hard for them to attend a group class. And they would lose out on the hands-on coaching we can provide in their homes.”

Brownell says the program’s success rate shows in-home counseling works to keep kids out of foster care by building strong families. Families are followed for a year after they complete the course, the high-risk period for repeat offenses. Ninety-five percent have no further abuse complaints or offenses during that period.

“That means these families are staying out of the child protection program,” she said.

The YMCA agrees Parent Partner program is successful but the state budget shortfall forces cutbacks, McKenney said. “We know in-home parenting classes are effective and we have no problem with the services the Family Partnership Center is providing, but we just won’t be able to continue funding the program.”

“It means the kids who already are experiencing problems are going to have the rug pulled out from under them,” said Brownell. “With the economic stress these families are under, now is not the time to take money away from prevention.”