Saturday, June 23, 2018
Health

Florida turns down $4.9 million from federal government designed to strengthen parenting

Kimberly Dudley says she is grateful for the agency Healthy Start, which sent an educator into her home to help her get off drugs and prevent her kids from being shipped to foster care.

"If I didn't have the program, I would be homeless with a premie," said Dudley, 21, a Clearwater mother of two young children.

Now the program is in danger.

Earlier this month, the Florida Department of Health turned down a $4.9 million federal grant that already has helped 84 Pinellas County families and hundreds more statewide.

The department was forced to turn down the money after the Florida Legislature refused to accept it.

Some state lawmakers were upset because the program is connected to the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."

"It's unconscionable, unconscionable that we should return this money to Washington . . . and allow it to go to other states," said state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.

The federal government was poised to give the $4.9 million to programs around the state that provide in-home visits to parents in areas with high rates of premature babies, poverty, crime, substance abuse, joblessness, child abuse and other issues.

The in-home visits are designed to combat those problems by deploying professionals who teach parenting and other skills.

Though the Legislature had the role of deciding whether to accept the grant money, Gov. Rick Scott said last month that "we're not going to implement Obamacare in Florida."

Lawmakers turned down the money.

Some lawmakers philosophically opposed a program that relies heavily on sending government workers into private homes, even voluntarily.

In addition to Pinellas County, the $4.9 million grant would have financed programs in four other areas of the state.

Judi Vitucci is executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Pinellas, which also operates other programs for prenatal care and infant health. She said her staff is trying to find other ways to serve the 84 families with 217 children who are in the home-visitation program now.

She worries what will happen if these families are dropped.

"Then they'd be on their own," Vitucci said.

Rich said the program has been well-studied and documented as one that improves children's lives.

In Pinellas, the program targets parents with children who are born with drugs in their system. Hospitals often make the referrals at birth.

Once in the program, the mother, father or both work with a parent educator. Drug treatment is an obvious first step, but that alone won't help a mom who's getting evicted next week.

So the educator can help the parents with other needs, such as job-seeking, parenting classes or housing assistance.

"It's in-home intervention and that consists of lots and lots of different kinds of support," Vitucci said. "It might be help with finding employment, it might be help with finding a food bank, it might be mental health counseling, it might be breast-feeding support."

But, said state Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, programs like this can lead people to rely on government assistance as a matter of course.

"There comes a time when we have to stop being so dependent on the federal government," she said.

She said private, faith-based groups should have a bigger role helping parents.

"When government asserts itself, their responsibility is taken away," Grimsley said.

The state initially accepted a grant for the first year of the program, which is how things got started in five regions around Florida.

With the option for the second year cut off, about 500 families will lose their services and about 80 staff members will lose their jobs, Rich said.

For Dudley, the Clearwater woman in the program, she said the assistance was life-changing.

"My baby was a methadone baby," she said.

Her Healthy Start workers helped her with drug treatment, parenting classes, clothes and keeping her family together.

She wasn't happy to learn the grant money was turned down.

"If I had the money, I would pay them back tenfold and I would provide more," she said. "There's plenty of mothers out there that need this help."

Contact Curtis Krueger at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.

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