Oklahoma City child abuse prevention program to shut down after losing state funds
Oklahoma City — Morenia Martinez had a rough start in life, but she didn't want it to affect her children.
Martinez, of Oklahoma City, grew up with a mother who couldn't support the family because of her addiction to alcohol, so Martinez had to work to help support the family from the age of 12. Her siblings also abused her, and she turned to alcohol to cope, though she quit drinking to set a good example for her own children. She lived with lingering anxiety from her childhood for years, until postpartum depression from the birth of her youngest child, Alexa, pushed her to ask a friend for help.
The friend recommended she try the Parents as Teachers home visitation program through the Latino Community Development Agency. Through the program, Martinez learned activities to support her daughter's development and tactics to calm her own anxiety.
It's an experience she knows many other families won't get to have. The state Health Department will end its funding for Parents as Teachers on Nov. 15 due to a budget shortfall following years of alleged overspending. The announcement came only about a month before funding will end, meaning it's unlikely that programs will be able to raise enough private funds to stay open.
“I have a lot of experience with my four kids, but there are women who are just starting” who need more help, she said.
The health department needs $30 million before it can make payroll, let alone consider reinstating cuts. It also faces pointed questions about how the gap came to be. Health Commissioner Terry Cline recently resigned, and Attorney General Mike Hunter has called for an investigative audit, which could lead to criminal charges, if warranted.
The department also announced cuts to community health centers, furloughs and possible layoffs to save money. Cutting the state child abuse prevention contracts will save about $1.9 million, though advocates believe it could cost the state more in the long run if children had to enter foster care.
Thelma Rodriguez, Parents as Teachers supervisor at the Latino Community Development Agency, admits it's difficult to say with certainty what would have happened to families if they hadn't participated. She does know, however, that most families they work with have at least three risk factors — such as serious mental illness, poverty or a teen parent — for abusing or neglecting a child.
Even before the state cuts, the agency always had a waitlist, Rodriguez said. The agency has some federally funded slots in the program, but those already are full and won't be able to absorb the 46 families that got state-funded services, she said.
“It has been really tough for the families,” she said. “We're trying to give them as many resources as possible.”
Parent educators conduct home visits where they observe how the parent and child interact. The educator can then talk to the parent about whether they think their discipline tactics have been effective, for example, and help the parent practice alternatives, Rodriguez said. Most parents don't intend to mistreat their children, but they may have learned unhealthy discipline from their own parents, or may be too overwhelmed to respond to their children's needs, she said.
“We see them in the middle of that stress,” she said. “Some of them will say, ‘I don't say anything loving because I never heard anything loving.'”
They also screen the children for developmental delays, and are available if parents need help outside normal hours, Rodriguez said.
The program just recently completed accreditation with the national Parents as Teachers Center, which involved showing the parents they work with improved, Rodriguez said. The timing is frustrating, she said, but her greater concern is that children will be less able to learn and succeed because their parents didn't learn how to nurture their development.
“The attachment you develop with your baby sets up how they're going to do in the world,” she said. “Many of the kiddos ... it makes me fearful. You just started with them and there's so much to do.”