Legislators struggling to balance Florida's budget in the waning days of this year's session slashed a highly successful program that helps new mothers considered at risk for abusing or neglecting their children.
The statewide Healthy Families initiative now faces the loss of $10 million for the fiscal year starting July 1 — more than a third of its budget and an amount that advocates say is "devastating."
Almost 4,500 of about 12,000 families are expected to be dropped from the program, in which social workers contact new mothers in the hospital and coach them at home for up to five years.
"The front-page story about the horrifically abused child or even murdered child at the hands of a caretaker is the one that gets everybody [outraged], and then we all talk about it and say, 'What can we do to prevent this?' " said Marie Martinez, operations manager for the Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families in Orlando, which runs the Healthy Families program in Orange County.
"Well, the answer is right here under our noses. It's tragic that we're taking this giant step backwards."
Healthy Families, launched in 1998 at six sites, now operates in each of the state's 67 counties and has an overall success rate of 98 percent — as measured by the number of families that have no confirmed cases of abuse or neglect while they're in the program and for up to two years afterward.