States' budget woes hitting programs for kids hard

States' budget woes hitting programs for kids hard

Posted: 05/17/2010 03:34 PM EDT

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 historic 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 trim another $89 billion next year. That means slashing services to the one population they've long protected: children.

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 can't serve as many kids, while others are forced to deal with monthslong 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, which released a study in January that found programs for children were cut or eliminated in more than 40 states.

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

"We will end up with a kid who is killed or will kill someone else," said Karen McLeod, president of Children and Family Services Association-N.C., an organization in North Carolina, where the state's mental health system was cut by $155 million last year. "We are very, very worried about what is going to happen."

Already, cutbacks to programs have led desperate parents to take increasingly desperate steps. They're leaving kids home alone or in households with a history of domestic violence. One mom in North Carolina camped out with her teenage son at a county facility for eight days, waiting for state officials to find him a bed in a state mental hospital.

Salima Mabry's son is autistic and mentally disabled. Fearing that taking him home even for a few hours would mean having to start the waiting process over, the two slept in chairs, took sponge baths in a public restroom sink and ate food friends and family brought.

"You're in a sitting chair like you wait for the doctor," Mabry said, adding that the setup didn't suit her son. "He had a fit (and) they had to restrain him (because) he didn't like sitting in a room."

Officials eventually found him a hospital bed.

The 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 shuttering 17 of its 33 child-guidance centers where children with significant behavioral problems can be assessed.

"Some kids just won't get services," said Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Terry Cline.

Oftentimes agencies are in limbo: They don't know how much state money they'll 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.

"People don't plan a crisis in their lives," said Nancy Ronquillo, president of Children's Home + Aid, a nonprofit group that provides services in Illinois and oversees two of the state's six crisis nurseries.

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 doesn't know what he would do without it.

The 37-year-old dad is recovering from bacterial meningitis that caused a series of strokes largely affecting his left side. "I can't function as well as I did," said Schultz, an unemployed construction worker.

The center allows him to go to physical therapy and on job interviews. And since he cannot afford day care, the nursery is his son's only chance to interact with other kids.

Mother House is helping another parent get the dialysis she needs. Before learning about the nursery, the woman would skip treatments because she had nowhere to take her kids.

"She was risking her own life because there was no child care," said Robin Carlson, the nursery's program manager.

Carlson said gutting such programs will only cause problems to escalate to the point where they become medical emergencies and crimes.

"One way or another we're going to have to pay for these services," she said.

In South Carolina, Department of Juvenile Justice director William R. Byars Jr. worries that loss of about $20 million in state funding will add up to an invitation to street gangs.

"One of the things gangs use to draw kids in is that they can give them a job," said Byars, of a now-defunct training program for juvenile parolees. "The first job offer they get is with the gangs, on a street corner (and) we got them into legitimate businesses ... in stores, mechanic shops, flipping hamburgers."

And in Hawaii, State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said the reduction in funding from $15 million years ago to $1.3 million this year for Healthy Start, her 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, the 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. "It teaches them how to get off the dole."

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."

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Associated Press Writer Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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