OKC child abuse pre­ven­tion pro­gram to shut down after los­ing state funds

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY MEG WINGERTER Staff Writer mwingerter@ok­la­homan.com

More­nia Martinez had a rough start in life, but she didn’t want it to af­fect her chil­dren.

Martinez, of Ok­la­homa City, grew up with a mother who couldn’t sup­port the fam­ily be­cause of her ad­dic­tion to al­co­hol, so Martinez had to work to help sup­port the fam­ily from the age of 12.

Her sib­lings also abused her, she said, and she turned to al­co­hol to cope, though she quit drink­ing to set a good ex­am­ple for her own chil­dren. She lived with lin­ger­ing anx­i­ety from her child­hood for years, un­til post­par­tum de­pres­sion from the birth of her youngest child, Alexa, pushed her to ask a friend for help.

The friend rec­om­mended she try the Par­ents as Teach­ers home vis­i­ta­tion pro­gram through the Latino Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Agency.

Through the pro­gram, Martinez learned ac­tiv­i­ties to sup­port her daugh­ter’s de­vel­op­ment and tac­tics to calm her own anx­i­ety.

It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence she knows many other fam­i­lies won’t get to have. The state Health Depart­ment will end its fund­ing for Par­ents as Teach­ers on Nov. 15 due to a bud­get short­fall fol­low­ing years of al­leged over­spend­ing. The an­nounce­ment came only about a month be­fore fund­ing will end, mean­ing it’s un­likely that pro­grams will be able to raise enough pri­vate funds to stay open.

“I have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence with my four kids, but there are women who are just start­ing” who need more help, she said.

The health depart­ment needs $30 mil­lion be­fore it can make pay­roll, let alone con­sider re­in­stat­ing cuts. It also faces pointed ques­tions about how the gap came to be. Health Com­mis­sioner Terry Cline re­cently re­signed, and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mike Hunter has called for an in­ves­tiga­tive au­dit, which could lead to crim­i­nal charges, if war­ranted.

The depart­ment also an­nounced cuts to com­mu­nity health cen­ters, fur­loughs and pos­si­ble lay­offs to save money. Cut­ting the state child abuse pre­ven­tion con­tracts will save about $1.9 mil­lion, though ad­vo­cates be­lieve it could cost the state more in the long run if chil­dren had to en­ter fos­ter care.

Thelma Rodriguez, Par­ents as Teach­ers su­per­vi­sor at the Latino Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Agency, ad­mits it’s dif­fi­cult to say with cer­tainty what would have hap­pened to fam­i­lies if they hadn’t par­tic­i­pated. She does know, how­ever, that most fam­i­lies they work with have at least three risk fac­tors — such as se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness, poverty or a teen par­ent — for abus­ing or ne­glect­ing a child.

Even be­fore the state cuts, the agency al­ways had a wait­ing list, Rodriguez said. The agency has some fed­er­ally funded slots in the pro­gram, but those al­ready are full and won’t be able to ab­sorb the 46 fam­i­lies that got state-funded ser­vices, she said.

“It has been re­ally tough for the fam­i­lies,” she said. “We’re try­ing to give them as many re­sources as pos­si­ble.”

Par­ent ed­u­ca­tors con­duct home vis­its where they ob­serve how the par­ent and child in­ter­act. The ed­u­ca­tor can then talk to the par­ent about whether they think their dis­ci­pline tac­tics have been ef­fec­tive, for ex­am­ple, and help the par­ent prac­tice al­ter­na­tives, Rodriguez said. Most par­ents don’t in­tend to mis­treat their chil­dren, but they may have learned unhealthy dis­ci­pline from their own par­ents, or may be too over­whelmed to re­spond to their chil­dren’s needs, she said.

“We see them in the mid­dle of that stress,” she said. “Some of them will say, ‘I don’t say any­thing loving be­cause I never heard any­thing loving.’”

They also screen the chil­dren for de­vel­op­men­tal de­lays, and are avail­able if par­ents need help out­side nor­mal hours, Rodriguez said.

The pro­gram just re­cently com­pleted ac­cred­i­ta­tion with the na­tional Par­ents as Teach­ers Cen­ter, which in­volved show­ing the par­ents they work with im­proved, Rodriguez said. The tim­ing is frus­trat­ing, she said, but her greater con­cern is that chil­dren will be less able to learn and suc­ceed be­cause their par­ents didn’t learn how to nur­ture their de­vel­op­ment.

“The at­tach­ment you de­velop with your baby sets up how they’re go­ing to do in the world,” she said. “Many of the kid­dos ... it makes me fear­ful. You just started with them and there’s so much to do.”

[PHOTO BY MEG WINGERTER, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

More­nia Martinez and her daugh­ter, Alexa, 3, prac­tice count­ing with a game on Nov. 2 at their Ok­la­homa City home. Con­suelo Rozo, right, is a par­ent ed­u­ca­tor in the Par­ents as Teach­ers pro­gram at the Latino Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Agency. Rozo works with the Martinezes and other fam­i­lies to im­prove how they re­late to their chil­dren, with the goal of im­prov­ing chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment and re­duc­ing their risk of abuse or ne­glect. The pro­gram is sched­uled to end be­cause of cuts by the Ok­la­homa State Depart­ment of Health.

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