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COLUMN:Our community needs Healthy Families

Agee, Mary
In its strategic vision, Prince William County prides itself on being “a community of choice with a strong, diverse economic base, where families and individuals choose to live and work.”

With this commitment to thriving communities, we want to make sure that our most vulnerable of neighbors are not left behind.

Unfortunately, the proposed elimination of a program called Healthy Families may save a fraction of a percent on this year’s budget, but may wind up costing the county far more in current state funding and future mandated and emergency services.

Healthy Families, a program of Northern Virginia Family Service, is a child abuse prevention program. By visiting pre-natal and newborn parents in their homes, family support workers can teach positive parenting skills, optimize child health and promote school readiness.

Currently, the program serves 126 families, 89 percent of whom have moved off TANF and food subsidies since enrolling in the program – with just $175,134 from the county.

Overall, Healthy Families has helped more than 2,000 local families since 1996. Most people admit that parenting is the hardest job they’ve ever had.

Even in a loving, committed relationship with financial resources and good coping skills, being a parent is tough.

Now imagine overburdened parents, those with no partner or family support, who have lost their home or their job, who face constant financial pressure, or who suffer from chronic mental or physical health issues.

Healthy Families offers support to families on the brink to help them become successful. People generally raise their children the way they were raised, repeating patterns learned in their own upbringing.

Family support workers, who observe parents in their home environment, give parents the tools to break these generational patterns of abuse and neglect.

And because NVFS has a continuum of services and network of partners in the community, our family support workers often refer parents to additional supports such as health and dental care, workforce training and transportation, services they might not otherwise have access to, further compounding their ability to be good parents.

The county’s support of Healthy Families also leverages an additional $245,000 in funding from the Commonwealth, which is in jeopardy of being lost.

In addition, economists have calculated that for every dollar invested in Healthy Families, at least $4 is saved in interventions.

Consider these economic ramifications for eliminating this program today:

* In Virginia, it costs $15,000 to hospitalize a premature or low birth weight baby.

* Healthy Families Prince William children have a regular medical provider and, last year, 91 percent of children were up-to-date on immunizations, helping to prevent chronic problems and keep health care costs in check.

* When a child experiences developmental delays, special education services average $12,900 a year in mandated services for one child.

* Healthy Families Prince William children are routinely screened for developmental delays. In FY 2014, 86 percent of children were on target for developmental milestones and 100 percent of those with suspected delays were referred for early intervention services.

* When the County needs to intervene with child placement services, it costs $43,800 per child for one year in foster care in Virginia.

* In FY2014, 96 percent of Healthy Families Prince William parents demonstrated positive parenting skills and 99 percent of families had an optimal home environment to support child development.

* Child abuse victims may seek treatment costs of more than $1 Million over the course of their lifetime.

*Last year, 100 percent of Healthy Families parents had no substantiated case of child abuse or neglect.

When you start to add up these numbers, the elimination of the Healthy Prince William just doesn’t add up.

We would encourage Prince William County to take another look at this program, or expect budget requests across the board: schools, health, family services and police will all be paying the price tomorrow for decisions made today.

As University of Chicago Professor and Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman said in regard to early childhood, “The question is not where to cut. The question is where to invest, and in what.”

We urge the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to protect funding for this vital program, and invest in families and our community’s future.

-Mary Agee is the president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Family Service. She has led the nonprofit for the past 27 years and has been with the organization since 1972.
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