States' budget problems cut into help for children


POSTED: Monday, May 17, 2010

CHICAGO » Now the crisis is reaching the children.

In Arizona a program that helped blind high school students care for themselves and find jobs is suspended. In South Carolina all five state-run group homes for kids closed, and a program that helped paroled youths get jobs is shuttered. And in Hawaii a program to reduce child abuse and neglect was cut so much that two years after serving 4,000 families, it now serves 100.

All over the country, the financial crisis has forced states to make cuts to close what the National Conference of State Legislatures found was an overall budget gap of $174.1 billion this fiscal year and has lawmakers looking to cut another $89 billion next year. That means slashing services to children, the one population they have long protected.

The scope of the cuts is unprecedented, child advocates say. Hit are programs that addressed everything from childhood obesity to child abuse, and from prenatal care to preschool inspections. Some cannot serve as many kids, Others are forced to deal with months-long delays, and many programs simply disappear.

“;We were really taken aback at just the sheer magnitude of the cuts,”; said Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, whose study found in January that programs for children were cut or eliminated in more than 40 states.

And now advocates worry all the gains they have made in improving children's lives will be lost and juvenile crime, child abuse, child neglect and other problems will climb.

Checks that agencies get from the state are about to get smaller or already have.

In Oklahoma, which has a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, the health department is shutting 17 of its 33 guidance centers where children with behavioral problems can be assessed.

“;Some kids just won't get services,”; said Oklahoma Department of Health Commissioner Terry Cline.

Agencies are oftentimes in limbo. They do not know how much state money they will get, or how long it will take lawmakers to make funding decisions.

Last year, Illinois' budget process dragged on so long, two crisis nurseries were forced to close on the weekends and overnight—a potentially dangerous move given that some parents drop children off because of domestic violence or medical emergencies.

William Schultz is a single parent who leaves his 4-year-old son at Mother House Crisis Nursery in Rockford, Ill., a couple times a week and said he does not know what he would do without it.

Schultz, 37, is recovering from bacterial meningitis that caused a series of strokes. The center allows him to go to physical therapy and job interviews. Since he cannot afford day care, the nursery is his son's only chance to interact with other kids.

In Hawaii, state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said reduction in funding from $15 million years ago to $1.3 million this year for Healthy Start, the state's nationally recognized child-abuse prevention program, will cause more children to be abused.

“;We have a 99.8 percent success rate in having all those families (in the home visitation program) not abuse or neglect their children,”; Chun Oakland said.

Also, eliminating some programs will push people to lean on the government for help. In Arizona for example, Marc Ashton, CEO of the Foundation for Blind Children, said skills taught by the independent-living program he had to suspend are exactly what high school students need to become self-sufficient.

“;It eliminates a dependency on the state,”; he said.

And having them working and paying taxes is much cheaper for states.

“;It costs $7,000 a month to lock a kid up and a couple hundred dollars a month to provide counseling,”; Ronquillo said. “;You do the math.”;