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Budget cuts increase fears for child safety


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POSTED: Monday, July 27, 2009

Hawaii's child protection advocates fear funding cuts will jeopardize the significant strides they have made in reducing child abuse and foster care rates.

About 200 state human services officials, Family Court judges, legislators and community partners celebrated their achievements at the Kapiolani Child Protection Center's recent 40th-anniversary open house.

But “;all of us are really nervous,”; said Dr. Steven Choy, director and clinical psychologist for the center, part of the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children.

Choy said when the Legislature enacted the Child Abuse Reporting and Child Protection Act in 1969, “;we were trying to rescue children and putting out fires. We didn't have the ability to support families, and kids were in limbo (in foster care).”;

The Kapiolani Child Protection Center, founded the same year, has served more than 95,000 children, he said. And more public reporting of abuse and neglect and prevention programs had these results: The foster care population dropped 43 percent in the past five years, and child re-abuse fell to 3.1 percent last year from 6 percent in 2003.

When big budget cuts were made during an economic slump in 1995, serious child abuse hospital cases soared from an average of 30 a year to 175, Choy said. “;Our hospital was just devastated. It had never seen so many cases. Everyone is really scared how rapid this goes when we don't have supportive programs.”;

Of major concern is the loss of funding to support most Healthy Start programs, said Barbara Naki, director of prevention and education with the Institute of Family Enrichment.

Healthy Start began in 1985 as a child abuse prevention project and has been a model for others across the country.

The program, which contracts with other nonprofit agencies for services to at-risk families, was allocated about $10 million for 2008-09 in the Health Department's budget but was dropped in the 2009-2010 budget.

DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the department wanted to use $7 million in tobacco funds to continue the statewide program but was unable to do that.

She said two programs will be retained, in Leeward Oahu and East Hawaii, with $1.3 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money from the Department of Human Services.

“;It's sad and it's scary,”; Naki said, emphasizing long-term effects of funding cuts. “;It's not just here and now; it's a whole generation. It's all these kids who are not going to get identified with parents and get the supportive services they need.”;

Choy said, “;Everyone needs to know our safety net is going to be so thin now. If we take out family-strengthening programs, there are going to be increases in maltreatment.

“;The Department of Human Services and the state are trying to preserve as much as possible what we had.”;

DHS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the department has not made any budget cuts to services related to child abuse and neglect or to families to prevent child abuse.

But Choy fears potential furloughs and layoffs, saying they “;will be a disaster”; for mandatory services for kids. “;I'm really scared about that. ... These kinds of programs are always underfunded, and we've had vacancies forever in Child Protective Services.”;

With success in reducing abuse and foster child rates, Choy said the Kapiolani center shifted to family-strengthening programs such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy to help families with children ages 2 to 8 who have behavioral problems affecting healthy development.

The foster care population, now averaging about 1,500 kids, once exceeded 3,000.

“;We didn't do enough to work with families, so they (children) lingered there,”; Choy said. “;We do a better job now helping families. We have a different perception: These are not monsters; these are families in trouble.”;