State: Abuse program will be scrapped

Researchers say it's ineffective

Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2006

ANCHORAGE - A government program intended to help prevent child abuse in Alaska is scheduled to be dropped this year because researchers have found it's ineffective.

State officials point to a study out of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore showing the Healthy Families program did not noticeably reduce child abuse and neglect.

"Some other models might be more effective," said Claudia Shanley, system reform administrator with the state Office of Children's Services.

In the first two years of a child's life, the state confirmed abuse or neglect in 16 percent of the families in the program, compared to 17 percent of families who did not get help from Healthy Families.

The study, completed in 2004, did show some positive results from the program, which is more than a decade old.

It found that mothers enrolled in Healthy Families felt less stress and had more empathy toward their children. They also knew more about child development than those in a control group.

Parents, as well as agencies operating Healthy Families, say the services are needed.

"A lot of families we see don't have family support. They are isolated," said Kristin Vernola, program manager for Healthy Families Mat-Su, which is run by Mat-Su Services for Children & Adults Inc.

Parents, all volunteers, usually get weekly home visits from support workers after a child's birth. Candidates for the program include households with teenage parents, domestic violence, drinking or drug use.

"I'm sad this is going to end because it could really help a lot of people out," said Dawna Chasse, 30, of Palmer, who has five children.

She and her husband used to yell at her older kids, she said, but a support worker from Healthy Families is helping them learn other ways.

Last budget year, 480 families received help through the program in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai and the Mat-Su area.

For the past three years, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens has earmarked money for Healthy Families in Alaska, including $1.75 million this budget year. But by the end of September, the money will be gone.

The Healthy Families program pays health workers to educate new parents about child development and alternatives to abuse. Workers were supposed to suggest treatment for parents with mental health or substance abuse problems.

When asked about the study, Vernola said a variety of factors could have influenced the results and that workers have improved the way they counsel parents since the study's release.

One problem addressed in the study was the reluctance of workers to confront parents about serious problems, such as mental illness or domestic violence, she said. But program managers have retrained workers to bring up those issues with parents.

"This is a huge learning curve," Vernola said. "I think it's a shame we have let all this work, time and money just go down the drain."

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