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Poorest children hurt by state budget
OXFORD COUNTY — An attempt to bridge the state's budget gap will hurt the children of Oxford County's poorest residents, say social agencies.
The Maine Families Home Visiting program is under the axe in Governor LePage's new budget, prompting local supporters of the program to say that the cut will have dramatic negative impacts.
Joan Churchill, the director of family services at Community Concepts, says that a public hearing in Augusta on Friday brought large numbers of supporters of the program together.
"The hearing started at 10, and I wasn't able to testify until quarter to four because there were so many people there," said Churchill.
In Oxford County, 150 families are visited on a regular basis by staff who are trained to help them overcome a variety of pitfalls for their young children, from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) to tobacco exposure, to factors that could prevent a child from getting a good start in pre-school.
Studies cited by the program's administrators show that money spent on the program helps to reduce larger costs down the road.
"The home visiting program ... saves the state significant money by reducing child abuse and neglect; improving school readiness; improving the safety and health of Maine’s youngest children; and connecting families to needed community, medical and other professional services at the earliest identified need – long before the more costly expenses of treatment and intervention are incurred," reads a portion of the program's mission statement.
Churchill says that saving a dime today will cost the state a dollar tomorrow.
"It's just going to go to MaineCare to fill the hole in MaineCare that will be left by cutting these prevention dollars," she said. "We're basically bringing our state back to the 1970s again. It's a lot better and cheaper to do prevention so that we're not in crisis situations."
Churchill says that most of the families in the county who are helped by the program are in the Oxford Hills region.
For them, the help they receive is a sorely-needed lifeline.
"These are families, over half have incomes below $10,000," said Churchill. "About 70 percent of the families have parents under the age of 22. They don't have the good support systems you or I might have."
Eliminating the program would also see six workers join the ranks of the unemployed, but Churchill says that the main concern is the children.
"We are helping them keep their children safe, and to develop as optimally as can happen, considering that they're living in poverty," she said.
Thanks to the support of the program, many families are able to access the services they need to find gainful employment for parents, and day-care services for children.
"We help them get child care and work out the barriers," said Churchill.
The threat to the program comes from LePage's biennial budget, which would eliminate the program's $4.6 million in funding. The cut would kill the program, costing 100 workers their jobs, and eliminating the services for 2,500 families across the state.
The funding for the program, says Churchill, does not come from the pockets of Maine taxpayers.
"This money comes from tobacco settlement money," she said. "It's not even Maine tax dollars."
Churchill is hoping that the budget can be modified to save the program.
"We dearly hope people who care about things like this will contact their legislature and say what they think," she said. "We hope like crazy that our good legislative people will think hard and long about something like this."
Churchill says that she has found local legislators to be sympathetic.
"The great wealth of Maine is that people aren't way to the right or way to the left," said Churchill. "The great majority of people are in the middle."
If the program is cut, says Churchill, the consequences will be severe.
"We will see more child abuse," she predicts, "not because these young parents want to harm their children, but because when people are stressed they do things that they don't intend."
The only other program that offers similar services to Oxford County residents is the Head Start program, which Churchill says is already overburdened.
"They already have a waiting list, and so they wouldn't help any of these 150 families," said Churchill.
Churchill urges those who care about the issue to contact their state legislator.
If the budget is approved as submitted, services to the families will be terminated on July 1.