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Report details budget cuts' impact on kids

Sandra Larson | 4/15/2009, 5:26 a.m.

State budget cuts are causing crucial services to be reduced or ended for some of the most vulnerable Massachusetts children, at a time when the need for those services is rising, according to a recently released report.

The report, issued earlier this month by the Children’s League of Massachusetts, details the effects of recent funding cuts on children and youth in need of foster care, mental health, early intervention and day care services.

State law requires that when projected revenue is less than projected spending, the governor must act to bring the budget into balance, and Section 9C of Chapter 29 of the Massachusetts General Laws allows mid-year cuts in spending. The first round of 9C cuts for fiscal year 2009 was made in October, with additional reductions coming in January.

More than half of these cuts were concentrated in the health and human services and education sectors.

 “We wanted to let people know, particularly policy makers, how the cuts were trickling down and impacting kids,” said Barbara Talkov, executive director of the Children’s League, a statewide nonprofit association of agencies and individuals that advocates for policies and funding for children, youth and families.

The league’s report, entitled “Public Secrets: Silent Suffering — The State of Our Most Vulnerable Children,” stems from a survey of hundreds of families, community service providers and state agencies.

The report focuses mainly on four state agencies: the Department of Children and Families (DCF), formerly called the Department of Social Services; the Department of Mental Health (DMH); the Department of Youth Services (DYS); and MassHealth, the state health insurance program.

For the DMH alone, the Children’s League report lists at least five cutbacks in service, including the closing of a 14-bed intensive residential treatment program, the elimination of a plan to expand child psychiatric services to schools, and reductions in case managers.

DCF Commissioner Angelo McClain said that over the past two years, his department has seen a 13 percent increase in the number of reports of abuse and neglect, a major jump compared to the average annual growth of 2 percent during the preceding decade. In testimony delivered March 11 to the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, he said the funding cuts will cause a reduction in or denial of services to families with low and moderate service needs, as well as a further decline in the state’s foster care rate and difficulty complying with child welfare legislation.

The DYS has closed more than 50 residential beds for youth committed by the juvenile justice system, on top of 191 residential beds closed last year. Plans to open the department’s only transitional living program in Boston were scrapped.

“As the DYS beds are gone, and [especially] given the lower budget, they will wind up with overcrowding and premature transitioning of kids to the community,” said Bill Lyttle, president of the Framingham-based Key Program, a nonprofit program for kids referred by DCF, DYS and DMH.

Lyttle and others noted an increase in demand for social and health services as the economy has deteriorated.