Report details budget cuts' impact on kids

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

Family Service of Greater Boston is certainly experiencing greater demand, said Randal Rucker, chief executive officer of the agency, which provides family counseling, parenting groups and behavioral health services to 5,800 families per year.

“What I can tell you is the level of calls has increased,” he said. “It has surged since last fall, almost in direct correlation with the [decline in the] economy.”

“This anxiety, falling behind on the rent, losing homes, only magnifies in the family structure,” Rucker added, “and it’s across the spectrum. The level of need has increased in every racial and economic group.” And children have no say in the stress the family is under, he noted.

The Children’s League report also emphasizes children’s special need for protection, stating that “as a class, children are inherently unable to advocate on their own behalf or to impact public policy.”

Cynthia Roy, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance, did not comment on cuts to children’s services specifically, but stressed that all types of services have been reduced.

“No priorities were spared the knife in the last two cuts, given the economic climate,” said Roy. The governor’s own priorities were scaled back as well, she said.

Rucker expressed frustration with the way budget decisions are made.

“The types of resources available to fortify the family unit, those things are being ripped out,” he said. “Those very low-cost services are being pushed aside and not funded.

“But you have to look at a long-term return on investment. It’s very hard to argue that helping a family not fall apart, and helping a child recover from abuse and neglect so the child is going to develop emotionally healthy, isn’t a wise investment. We may not see it for five or 10 years, but it’s a good investment.”

He said that cutting out “low service needs” such as the development of parenting skills means those low needs become moderate needs, and could eventually spike to severe.

“The impact of parenting groups is huge,” he said, “and the amount of money is so small.”

State Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who co-chaired a special statewide commission on the healthy development of children during and after school, said she is disturbed by the magnitude of the cuts and the budget decision process.

“The cuts to children and families, this time, in terms of total impact, is unprecedented, in my memory,” said the Dorchester Democrat.

St. Fleur said the budget approach needs to be changed from one based on “budgetary restriction lines” to one that looks at “best practices, and the outcomes we are looking for” for kids.

“We’re dismantling without making [a] fair assessment of what ought to go and what ought to stay,” St. Fleur said. She said she sees the financial crisis as an opportunity, one that is being missed.

“It’s an opportunity for dialogue, and for changing the delivery of services, the way it’s done and the way we think about it,” she said. “I’m not sure we are using this moment to think out of the box and move the agenda for children forward in a meaningful way.”

Budget negotiations for fiscal year 2010 are now in progress in the House and Senate Ways and Means committees. Talkov said the Children’s League hopes the new report will help influence policymakers to avoid further cuts to children’s services and to restore funding to the 2009 levels before the recent cuts.

“Taking care of vulnerable kids is public safety,” said Talkov. “Kids who have been abused don’t come out of it without help.”

Without that help, she said, many will wind up in the court or mental health systems, or out on the streets.

“These are kids with physical and emotional needs,” said Talkov. “If they get help early, they have a much better chance of making it as an adult.”