State cuts programs from health district

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerSeptember 30, 2009 

The Benton-Franklin Health District stands to lose two more public health nurses in the wake of state budget cuts to three programs for abused and neglected children.

District officials said Tuesday that they learned the Children's Administration was canceling contracts for the Foster Care Public Health Nurse Services program, Early Intervention Program and Early Family Support Services Program effective Nov. 1.

The Children's Administration is the arm of the state Department of Social and Human Services that oversees foster care, adoption and child safety and protection.

Children's Administration spokeswoman Sherry Hill said the agency's regional administrator for Central Washington decided to cancel the contracts as part of an effort to save $250,000 in costs for the region covering Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla.

Another $2 million remains to be hacked from the regional Children's Administration budget to cope with falling state revenues, Hill said.

Dr. Larry Jecha, public health officer for Benton and Franklin counties, said the loss of the three contracts means the bicounty health district no longer will offer those three programs, and will have to lay off staff members who support the programs.

"If the money goes away, the programs and the individuals go away," Jecha said.

The district has been struggling financially, and earlier this month sent layoff notices to nine people as part of its effort to trim $500,000 from its budget for 2010.

Those cuts came because the district spent the last $500,000 it had in cash reserves to cover this year's $9.1 million operating budget, leaving no reserves for 2010.

Among the jobs lost earlier this month were a public health nurse who worked with child care centers and two environmental health educators.

Sandy Owen, director of Preventive Health Services for the district, said the district will lose two more public health nurses when the Children's Administration programs end.

But she's more worried about the effect on the families those programs serve.

The Early Intervention Program and Early Family Support Services Program both work with families who are at risk for ending up in the Child Protective Services net by recognizing signs of abuse and neglect, and providing training and resources intended to keep families together and keep children out of foster care.

"Prevention is always hard to prove, but I think the risk is that these families could go longer without being detected," Owen said. "It could mean these kids end up with longer-term neglect or more severe abuse before they enter services. ... In the meantime, it will put a greater load on CPS case workers because they won't have us to refer families to."

The third program being cut provides children in foster care with comprehensive medical records that travel with them from home to home, ensuring they get better consistency of medical care, Owen said.

The total funding for the three contracts is about $127,000. Owen said the district has run each of the programs for several years.

"I think if we don't do these preventive things now, we are going to have bigger problems later," she said. "If these children don't get help earlier, it's going to be harder to work with them and harder to make a difference and make changes for them later on. If we don't find these kids now, we may find them in dire straits or injured or worse later on."

w Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com

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