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Governor's child initiatives stress early action

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

In his annual State of the Child address this afternoon in Anchorage, Gov. Tony Knowles was to call for beefed up efforts to improve health, safety and education for young Alaskans.

The governor proposes to use about $17.3 million in additional state and federal funds for a program he has renamed "Smart Start, Strong Future." That's in addition to his recommendation for a $31 million bump in K-12 education.

"Every Alaska child deserves the opportunity to grow up safe, healthy and prepared for success," says the governor's prepared speech. "We must never waver from that goal."

The goal of the various initiatives in the package is to head off problems before they get serious, said Annalee McConnell, the governor's budget director, and Jay Livey, commissioner of health and social services, in a briefing this morning.

"Wherever possible, we're trying to move back up the chain, if you will," McConnell said. "So instead of focusing only on what you do once a child has got serious problems whether you're talking about juvenile delinquency or a serious abuse situation let's constantly try and think about how you can move up the chain closer to the source of the problem and address it earlier on.

"It obviously has a benefit for the child and the family. It also has a benefit in terms of cost to the state. It's less expensive to do these things early."

At least two dozen new positions would be created, although an exact number won't be available until the governor unveils his entire budget proposal Friday. That will outline what Knowles wants the Legislature to approve for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2002.

Among the new positions would be five state troopers to respond to reports of child abuse throughout the state, 13 probation officers to serve adults with children or juveniles, and nine case workers in the Department of Health and Social Services, McConnell said.

Overall, new spending would be $9.2 million in state general funds, $2.55 million in direct federal funds, and $5.6 million through a mix of restricted state revenue, federal programs and interagency transfers.

Program elements include:

$7.4 million in preventing or ending tobacco use by minors, a $4.4 million increase from the current effort, including "counter-marketing."

$1.2 million to expand alcohol treatment capacity so 61 women on a waiting list can enter treatment with their children, with fewer children then placed in foster homes.

$500,000 more in suicide prevention grants, providing up to 35 counselors. Alaska leads the nation in suicides. Among Native teens, the suicide rate is 197.5 per 100,000.

$825,000 toward a "zero tolerance" policy on child abuse, with additional state troopers who can response to reports within 24 hours statewide.

Seven new juvenile probation officers, at a cost of $500,000, projected to reduce Alaska's officer caseload from 31-1 two and a half times the national average to 28-1.

Increasing the base rate for foster parents from an average of $22.34 a day to $25.36, which would bring Alaska up to 1997 federal poverty guidelines.

$175,000 in an environmental initiative to assure the quality of drinking water, sanitation, food safety and air quality in schools and child-care facilities.

The possible effect of environmental factors on student health and performance was identified by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Asthma is now the highest reason for absenteeism," McConnell said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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