Officials: Federal cuts put Arkansas children at risk

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 108 views 

School officials who deal with thousands of children at-risk for child abuse or neglect are themselves at risk of losing their jobs this July.

The federal government dealt a blow to Arkansas’s efforts to prevent child abuse by cutting funding to the state’s human services department. The move forced the state to eliminate programs statewide or to lose caseworkers investigating child abuse, according to a news release Tuesday.

The state human services department announced earlier this week it lost $2,247,469 in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding — money the department’s Division of Children and Family Services uses to conduct child maltreatment investigations.

“Unfortunately, we do have to make tough decisions when budgets get tight,” state spokeswoman Amy Webb said in email.

A spokesman for the federal human services department did not return an email and follow-up phone call left Thursday evening and Friday.

The state decided to cut all funding for the Human Service Workers in Schools Program that goes to 27 school districts and helps about 15,429 students. Nine Family Resource Centers — including a center in Newton County — will also lose state funding. The Jones Center in Springdale will not be affected, Webb said.

Other cuts include the Arkansas State Police, according to a news release. State police spokesman did not return a phone message left Thursday.

Unless the schools can fund the human services positions themselves, the funding cuts could spell the end of frontline child prevention by caseworkers in high-poverty schools, officials said. Those schools include those in West Fork and Fort Smith.

“We’re just sick about it,” said John Karnes, West Fork School District superintendent.

Karnes and others said the state is cutting those most in need, hurting communities and pivoting away from preventative care. Arkansas is in danger of becoming more reactive than proactive, Karnes said. Others said the state could see a setback in efforts to prevent child abuse

The cuts coming for the 2013 fiscal year that starts July 1 are among the first cuts coming. Next year, the state expects even deeper cuts in federal aid, said Jennifer Ferguson, deputy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a non-profit organization that supports public policy that services families and children.

Should those cuts go through, the state’s children and family services division would not be able to manage the 34,000 child-maltreatment investigations it currently handles, according to a news release.

Arkansas must decide what its priorities are, Ferguson said.

The state needs to step up and fill the gap left by the federal government, she said, but the state has no funds set aside to pay for the programs being cut, said Matt DeCample, the governor’s spokesman. A state fund for temporary emergencies isn’t meant to cover permanent funding losses, he said.

“This is the reality of cuts to federal spending — is that you are going to see programs like this that are going to suffer,” DeCample said.

 The state fiscal session is over, so there is little state lawmakers can do, state Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, said.

“It’s something the federal government did,” Madison said. “It’s especially sad because it’s National Child Abuse Prevention month. [But] I guess we’d rather spend money on war.”

J.R. Davis, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said the federal government doesn’t have the money to pay for all the worthy programs. Communities and public-private partnerships might be necessary to fill the void, he said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s office released a statement saying the Arkansas Democrat will “look for ways to support struggling families during these difficult times.”

School officials said they are still reeling from the announcement.

In Fort Smith, two social workers handle about 2,360 children at six schools. Nearly 100% of the students are on free or reduced lunches, a sign of how high the poverty is, said Randy Bridges, director of student services for the Fort Smith schools.

Poverty is a risk factor for child abuse, officials said, and Bridges said the state program targeted needy students and families.

Social workers have helped hundreds of families find ways to keep electricity on, put food on the table, develop parenting skills and stay out of the foster care system, Bridges said.

“[Social workers] provide one-on-one help to families,” Bridges said. “It impacts every kid in the school.”

But school districts are facing budget woes too, superintendents said. Bridges said Fort Smith hadn’t decided what to do.

“The budget is just really, really tight right now,” he said.

In West Fork, where more than 60% of children receive free or reduced meals, the human service worker is often the only person families will confide in, Karnes said. The district is desperate to keep that community connection to prevent child abuse, he said. But, the number of children in West Fork schools has decline, and the school might not be able to afford the position on its own.

“It’s tough on a school district like ours,” Karnes said.

Without the Human Services program in schools, more children already teetering on the edge will fall from neglect and into child abuse, Ferguson said. That means more children in foster care, and more expense to the state, she said.

“Those programs were reaching out to a lot of children in our state,” Ferguson said. “It doesn’t make sense to cut child abuse and prevention programs.”