Florida rejects child-abuse prevention funds tied to health care law

Florida lawmakers have rejected more than $50 million in federal child-abuse prevention money. The grants were tied to the Obama administration’s health care reform package, which many lawmakers oppose on philosophical grounds.

The money, offered through the federal Affordable Health Care Act passed last year, would have paid, among other things, for a visiting nurse program run by Healthy Families Florida, one of the most successful child-abuse prevention efforts in the nation. Healthy Families’ budget was cut in last year’s spending plan by close to $10 million.

And because the federal Race to the Top educational-reform effort is tied to the child-abuse prevention program that Healthy Families administers, the state may also lose a four-year block grant worth an additional $100 million in federal dollars, records show.

“This is just crazy,” said Gwen Wurm, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami, and a board member of the Our Kids foster care agency. “This is the model for what you want in a prevention program. They have proven results.”

Healthy Families, which started with a $10 million budget in 1998, provides trained home visitors — many of whom are nurses — to work with young parents who, based on a questionnaire filled out at child birth, are deemed at risk of abusing or neglecting their children. The visitors offer guidance on everything from healthy eating habits and early childhood development to recognizing safety hazards, such as pools and sweltering, sealed automobiles.

Wurm said the model is particularly effective because it is hands-on and offers parents concrete advice on how to care for their kids — not just a laundry list of things they shouldn’t do. “If I just tell you, ‘Do not shake your baby,’ and your baby is still screaming, I have not solved your problem,” Wurm said. “They are not just telling parents what not to do.”

Richard Gelles, dean of the Department of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, said prevention models such as Healthy Families have been the most successful in the country in preventing child abuse and encouraging appropriate child development — but also saving states millions of dollars down the line in costs associated with foster care, delinquency and health care.

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