Like a physician with a critically ill patient, the first charge of social-service providers must be: Do no harm. But, it is difficult to balance the goals of family preservation and child protection when families are already in crisis. It is much easier — and less expensive — to avoid the crisis in the first place.
Almost four decades of working in social services has taught me that the best way to eliminate the problems with Florida’s child-protection services, as reported in the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series, is to circumvent the need for those services in the first place. Achieving this goal and sustaining it requires that we invest up front to support and strengthen vulnerable families before abuse ever begins.
While most at-risk expectant and new parents realize they need help, funding to provide services for families before they are in crisis has not been a top priority. When we’re consumed with addressing the crisis of the day, it can be difficult to see the preventable crisis of the future.
Parents are ultimately responsible for their children's development. But many parents lack the knowledge and skills to overcome significant challenges that hamper their ability to provide safe, nurturing environments for their children. This is where Healthy Families Florida’s home-visiting services make a significant difference.
The Department of Children & Families’ recent Child Fatality Trend Analysis report shows that prior in-home services reduce the odds of child death by 90 percent, indicating that visits to the home have a positive impact on keeping children safe.
Healthy Families Florida, established by the Florida Legislature in 1998, is an evidence-based, nationally accredited home-visiting program proven to prevent child abuse and neglect in 98 percent of the high-risk families served.
Expectant parents and parents of newborns under 3 months of age are assessed for specific research-based factors that indicate an increased risk for the occurrence of child abuse and neglect, and are offered the opportunity to voluntarily enter the Healthy Families program.
The program pairs families with highly trained home visitors who work with them to improve child and family well-being. This is accomplished by raising parents’ knowledge of child development, promoting positive parent-child interaction and teaching positive, age-appropriate discipline strategies, as well as problem-solving skills and healthy ways to cope with stress.
Home visitors also promote personal responsibility by working with parents to set and achieve goals related to long-term self-sufficiency and healthy family functioning, such as improving their own education, finding employment and building stronger, more-stable relationships with the people in their lives.
By intervening early, before dysfunctional parenting patterns are established, Healthy Families spares children from the trauma of abuse and neglect before it ever begins and spares taxpayers from the significantly higher social and financial costs of intervening only after abuse occurs.
Child abuse and neglect are complex problems with no easy answers or quick fixes, but research shows that investing in home-visiting services that build strong families is more effective and less costly than trying to repair the damage after abuse occurs.
Healthy Families currently provides services in targeted areas in 58 of Florida’s 67 counties. Bringing these proven prevention services to scale will provide more at-risk families access to the help they need and want.
We applaud Gov. Rick Scott for recognizing the importance of preventing child abuse and neglect by recommending a $7 million increase for Healthy Families. It is now up to the Legislature, which has a timely opportunity to do all it can to invest in the protection of Florida’s children.
Saving children’s lives and taxpayer dollars is the morally right and economically wise way to move our state in the right direction.
Carol McNally is executive director of Healthy Families Florida.