Guest Opinions

In Focus: Loss of networks hurts our vulnerable

Some of our state’s neediest children and families are losing or have lost two treasured organizations. For us in Benton and Franklin counties, they are already gone.We are not alone; neighboring families in Walla Walla and Douglas counties, Whatcom, Pierce, North Seattle and counties all over the state either have already lost or will lose this support soon.You may have only a vague understanding of the Public Health and Safety Networks. They operated for about 18 years in Washington, under the direction of the state’s Family Policy Council and its staff in Olympia.This loss is more than just one more government program slipping away.The networks were an experiment in giving a relatively small amount of their tax money back to the people and letting them determine how to spend it. There were, as is customary, many procedures in place to make sure the money was spent properly.And as the name Family Policy Council suggests, all the money had to go to benefit children and families in trouble.To understand the Family Policy Council, envision a statewide board consisting of representatives from the governor’s office, the “four corners” of the Legislature (one Democrat and one Republican from the House of Representatives and one more from each side in the Senate), the superintendent of Public Instruction and representatives from social service groups.In general the Family Policy Council was based on the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) concept. Using research by Drs. Robert F. Anda and Vincent J. Felitti in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, nine critical adverse experiences for children and troubled families are found in children who are suffering. Any one can be devastating:w Recurrent emotional abuse.w Sexual abuse.w An alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household.w An incarcerated household member.w Someone in the family who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized or suicidal.w Mother is treated violently.w Only one or no parents.w Emotional neglect.w Physical neglect.That’s the overarching list of priorities. Addressing ways to avoid them was left to the networks. All the money the networks spent was to alleviate one or more of the nine factors. In the early days, when almost $8 million was allocated to the networks, some truly exceptional results were obtained:w Clark County’s network reduced child abuse cases and out-of-home placements despite a 47 percent population growth.w In San Juan County dependency proceedings fell to historic lows.w Northside-Shoreline Network developed a youth intervention program that reduced recidivism among first-time offenders by 90 percent.w In Chelan-Douglas counties teen pregnancies dropped from eighth place statewide; in Chelan to 26th, Douglas County dropped to 30th place in one reporting period.Of course we are most concerned with Benton and Franklin counties. Here, programs ranged from providing guides on parenting and child care to providing those “artificial” babies — that cry at inconveniant times and wet their diapers — and a statistical data book to help small charitable organizations raise money through grant applications. These booklets and documents were produced by a partnership with United Way of Benton & Franklin Counties, Washington State University-Tri-Cities, Columbia Basin College and the Tri-City Herald. Volunteer help in assembling the books was provided by teenagers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The most well-known of Benton and Franklin’s network projects was Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery.It was one of the Family Policy Council’s stars.The credit for developing Safe Harbor was widespread. All sorts of organizations and individuals gave money and construction materials for the rent and equipment of the original Safe Harbor and the later, larger, brand-new facility it occupies now. But among those contributors, in a special way, were the Benton and Franklin Networks. Safe Harbor’s staff was quick to acknowledge that it was network money that enabled them to stay open when times got tough, especially in the beginning.Benton and Franklin networks were separate but cooperative.Each had its own board and backed the programs each chose. But they shared one administrator, Judy Schenk, whose last day on partial salary was a month or so ago but whose full-time position was eliminated by the Legislature about a year ago. She continued up until last week as a volunteer.Throughout the existence of the Benton and Franklin networks, United Way of Benton & Franklin Counties has provided office space for the networks and their shared executive. That’s 18 years without charging a penny for rent. That generosity helped the networks do even more — much, much more —for the people who needed our help.Besides grants, the networks also helped coordinate state programs and operations in the Tri-Cities, from the Community Action Committee to the County Health Department.The community has lost a lot with the passing of the Family Policy Council and the networks.w Matt Taylor is a retired Tri-City Herald Editorial Page editor and writer.