State budget cuts are causing crucial services to be reduced or ended for some of the most vulnerable Massachusetts children, at a time when the need for those services is rising, according to a recently released report.
The report, issued earlier this month by the Children’s League of Massachusetts, details the effects of recent funding cuts on children and youth in need of foster care, mental health, early intervention and day care services.
State law requires that when projected revenue is less than projected spending, the governor must act to bring the budget into balance, and Section 9C of Chapter 29 of the Massachusetts General Laws allows mid-year cuts in spending. The first round of 9C cuts for fiscal year 2009 was made in October, with additional reductions coming in January.
More than half of these cuts were concentrated in the health and human services and education sectors.
“We wanted to let people know, particularly policy makers, how the cuts were trickling down and impacting kids,” said Barbara Talkov, executive director of the Children’s League, a statewide nonprofit association of agencies and individuals that advocates for policies and funding for children, youth and families.
The league’s report, entitled “Public Secrets: Silent Suffering — The State of Our Most Vulnerable Children,” stems from a survey of hundreds of families, community service providers and state agencies.
The report focuses mainly on four state agencies: the Department of Children and Families (DCF), formerly called the Department of Social Services; the Department of Mental Health (DMH); the Department of Youth Services (DYS); and MassHealth, the state health insurance program.
For the DMH alone, the Children’s League report lists at least five cutbacks in service, including the closing of a 14-bed intensive residential treatment program, the elimination of a plan to expand child psychiatric services to schools, and reductions in case managers.
DCF Commissioner Angelo McClain said that over the past two years, his department has seen a 13 percent increase in the number of reports of abuse and neglect, a major jump compared to the average annual growth of 2 percent during the preceding decade. In testimony delivered March 11 to the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, he said the funding cuts will cause a reduction in or denial of services to families with low and moderate service needs, as well as a further decline in the state’s foster care rate and difficulty complying with child welfare legislation.
The DYS has closed more than 50 residential beds for youth committed by the juvenile justice system, on top of 191 residential beds closed last year. Plans to open the department’s only transitional living program in Boston were scrapped.
“As the DYS beds are gone, and [especially] given the lower budget, they will wind up with overcrowding and premature transitioning of kids to the community,” said Bill Lyttle, president of the Framingham-based Key Program, a nonprofit program for kids referred by DCF, DYS and DMH.
Lyttle and others noted an increase in demand for social and health services as the economy has deteriorated.
Family Service of Greater Boston is certainly experiencing greater demand, said Randal Rucker, chief executive officer of the agency, which provides family counseling, parenting groups and behavioral health services to 5,800 families per year.
“What I can tell you is the level of calls has increased,” he said. “It has surged since last fall, almost in direct correlation with the [decline in the] economy.”
“This anxiety, falling behind on the rent, losing homes, only magnifies in the family structure,” Rucker added, “and it’s across the spectrum. The level of need has increased in every racial and economic group.” And children have no say in the stress the family is under, he noted.
The Children’s League report also emphasizes children’s special need for protection, stating that “as a class, children are inherently unable to advocate on their own behalf or to impact public policy.”
Cynthia Roy, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance, did not comment on cuts to children’s services specifically, but stressed that all types of services have been reduced.
“No priorities were spared the knife in the last two cuts, given the economic climate,” said Roy. The governor’s own priorities were scaled back as well, she said.
Rucker expressed frustration with the way budget decisions are made.
“The types of resources available to fortify the family unit, those things are being ripped out,” he said. “Those very low-cost services are being pushed aside and not funded.
“But you have to look at a long-term return on investment. It’s very hard to argue that helping a family not fall apart, and helping a child recover from abuse and neglect so the child is going to develop emotionally healthy, isn’t a wise investment. We may not see it for five or 10 years, but it’s a good investment.”
He said that cutting out “low service needs” such as the development of parenting skills means those low needs become moderate needs, and could eventually spike to severe.
“The impact of parenting groups is huge,” he said, “and the amount of money is so small.”
State Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who co-chaired a special statewide commission on the healthy development of children during and after school, said she is disturbed by the magnitude of the cuts and the budget decision process.
“The cuts to children and families, this time, in terms of total impact, is unprecedented, in my memory,” said the Dorchester Democrat.
St. Fleur said the budget approach needs to be changed from one based on “budgetary restriction lines” to one that looks at “best practices, and the outcomes we are looking for” for kids.
“We’re dismantling without making [a] fair assessment of what ought to go and what ought to stay,” St. Fleur said. She said she sees the financial crisis as an opportunity, one that is being missed.
“It’s an opportunity for dialogue, and for changing the delivery of services, the way it’s done and the way we think about it,” she said. “I’m not sure we are using this moment to think out of the box and move the agenda for children forward in a meaningful way.”
Budget negotiations for fiscal year 2010 are now in progress in the House and Senate Ways and Means committees. Talkov said the Children’s League hopes the new report will help influence policymakers to avoid further cuts to children’s services and to restore funding to the 2009 levels before the recent cuts.
“Taking care of vulnerable kids is public safety,” said Talkov. “Kids who have been abused don’t come out of it without help.”
Without that help, she said, many will wind up in the court or mental health systems, or out on the streets.
“These are kids with physical and emotional needs,” said Talkov. “If they get help early, they have a much better chance of making it as an adult.”
The full report prepared by the Children's League of Massachusetts, titled "Public Secrets: Silent Suffering - The State of Our Most Vulnerable Children," is available here. NOTE: The document is in PDF format, and Adobe Reader is required to read it. You can download the latest version here.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc., better known as METCO, is facing an uncertain future as the economic downturn continues to take its toll on programs and social services dependent on state funding. More »
Children in Georgia families living below the poverty line are almost five times more likely to suffer poor health than their wealthier counterparts — among the biggest income-based gaps in children’s health in the nation, according to a new report that found similar disparities across the South. More »
Aside from its academic benefits, school administrators recognize that Expanded Learning Time, or ELT, has the added benefit of keeping students off the streets after school, when juvenile crime rates spike. More »