HARRISBURG — A group of prosecutors is calling on the state to increase funding for home-visit programs aimed at helping parents as a way to combat the child abuse crisis in Pennsylvania.
“We do a nice job of prosecuting people, but a far better answer is prevention,” said Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman.
Stedman said advocates of the plan recognize that it seems like a steep request. Asking lawmakers to pay for prevention is problematic because quantifying success may be difficult in the short-term.
“This will bear fruit and be good in the long run,” he said.
A budget passed by the state House would cut about $1.5 million in funding for the home-visiting programs. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed an increase of $235,000. In addition, the governor has called for spending $9 million to create a new competitive grant program for home-visiting programs. If funded, this would provide enough money to provide home visits for 1,700 families, said Steve Doster, a spokesman for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
There are now more than 18,000 families being served by the existing home-visiting programs in Pennsylvania, Department of Human Services spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said.
The deaths of 46 children were blamed on child abuse in Pennsylvania last year, and another 79 children were so horribly injured by abuse that investigators described their cases as "near fatalities." In all, caseworkers documented abuse in 4,597 cases in Pennsylvania last year, according to a report released in May by the state Department of Human Services.
Stedman was joined by the district attorneys from Dauphin, Cumberland and Lebanon counties at a Monday press conference hosted by Doster’s group.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is a group of law enforcement officials lobbying for increased spending on efforts to prevent crime. The state Fight Crime: Invest in Kids organization released a report in April documenting how effective home visiting programs are.
The Nurse-Family Partnership home visiting program cut child abuse and neglect by 50 percent among participating families, the group found. The study of the Nurse-Family Partnership also showed that by age 15, children in families not in the program had twice as many arrests, and by age 19, they had more than twice as many convictions.
In these programs, the parents are paired with nurses or other mentors who talk about the physical and emotional development of their children and offer tools to manage stress and effectively guide young children out of problem behaviors, according to the April Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report.
It’s not the only research that suggests that if the state fails to help kids it will end up carrying a cost down the road.
Stedman pointed to a survey from the state Department of Corrections released in April. That survey of 600 incoming prison inmates found that 1-in-8 of those prisoners said they’d been abused as children. That’s 65 times higher than the state average child abuse rate, he said. This comes as the state grapples with a flood of new reports of suspected child abuse, largely driven by changes in the law regarding who is required to notify authorities about potential abuse.
While the state budget plan approved by the House would cut spending on home visiting programs, it would still direct the state to spend almost $10.4 million on these efforts.
Those in law enforcement aren’t alone in touting the benefits of spending on in-home visits.
The evidence of their value has generally made home-visiting programs popular with officials from both major political parties, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice.
While, the budget proposed by President Donald Trump slashes funding for many things, it provides level funding for a Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting Program originally created by the Affordable Care Act, she said. Trump’s plan would also provide $400 million in grants to states to pay for in-home visits to at-risk pregnant and new moms, she said.
Budget documents created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services justify the spending, noting: “Research shows that home visits provide a positive return on investment by reducing reliance upon emergency room visits and public benefits receipt, decreasing interaction with child protective services and increasing parental earnings.”
Palm said the key to making sure these programs are successful is giving parents access to help when it is optional and before the family situation deteriorates to the point that it’s in crisis.
The Nurse Family Partnership works well because the help comes from a non-threatening source.
“It’s a lot more effective than having someone knock on the door and say, ‘I’m from the government, I’m here to help,’” she said.
She said that a mom recovering from drug addiction is a good example of a situation where the in-home visits can provide guidance.
“Raising a child is intimidating and overwhelming for all of us,” Palm said. "If you are a woman in recovery, bringing a newborn home just adds to the challenge.”
With the state grappling with a drug crisis, along with a child abuse crisis, the need is greater than ever for the type of assistance the home-visiting programs provide, she said.
John Finnerty is the Statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.