March 4, 2009 in City

Cuts reaching state’s ‘most vulnerable’ kids

Eliminated program compiled foster children’s health records
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Government spending cuts are unraveling safety nets that help foster children in Spokane County receive medical care.

It’s another blow to the critical help offered to at-risk children, poor pregnant women and others, said Elaine Conley, director of the Spokane Regional Health District’s Community and Family Services Division.

Nine public health nurse positions have been eliminated at the health district in the past two months. Three of those nurses collected and analyzed health records of foster children for the Passport program, which compiled the kids’ often-fragmented health histories, helping pediatricians deliver proper care.

More than 200 foster children live in Spokane County at any given time.

The state Department of Social and Health Services has to find millions of dollars in savings by June 30. And that’s before the true reckoning occurs, when legislators will struggle to balance an overall state budget amid projected declines in tax revenue that could near $8 billion over the next two years.

In Region 1, which encompasses 13 counties including Spokane, the savings target was $3.5 million. Job openings have been left dark. Temporary employees’ contracts will not be renewed. And now managers are searching for another $2.7 million in savings from services.

Programs directly tied to child safety will not be targeted, said Connie Lambert-Eckel, deputy regional administrator for the DSHS Division of Children and Family Services.

While all of the cuts are discouraging, she said, the Passport program overlapped with other DSHS work and could be cut without compromising children’s safety.

“That has to be our benchmark,” said Lambert-Eckel. Spokane is the only county to cut its Passport program, though others may be forced to later.

Lambert-Eckel said budget cuts have strained the partnership between DSHS and Spokane’s health district. “I hope at some point we see a turning point and can return together to provide the best services,” she said.

The health district has seen its portfolio of community and family services drop. The General Field Nursing program, which provided services to pregnant teens, single fathers, premature infants, developmentally disabled parents and others, was cut in January.

The Early Intervention Program, which sent nurses into the homes of families where the risk of child abuse was high, also was cut in January.

Such cuts may cause particular dismay in Spokane, where high-profile child abuse cases have galvanized community support and action programs.

“Here we have the state taking custody of our most vulnerable children,” said Mary Ann Murphy, director of Partners with Families and Children, a Spokane nonprofit agency, “and now they are going to fail to provide everything it can for that child.”

She doesn’t blame anyone for the budget problems but said the state should look elsewhere to make cuts.

“When we remove a child from their own home, we know they lose that tie of belonging,” she said. “It’s really unacceptable to have a system that fails to provide better care for these children under the auspices of the state.”

John Stucke can be reached at (509) 459-5419 or johnst@spokesman.com.

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