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Lobbying for Child Abuse Prevention

Donna Klagholz and Senator Howell strive for legislative support and higher budgets.

*To protect the privacy of certain individuals referenced in this article, only their first names have been used.

When Fatiha went to the emergency room as the result of a miscarriage, she had no idea that it would cost her so much money. She also had no idea that her visit would ultimately lead her to a program that would change her life.

"They charged me a lot because I had no insurance, so when I was pregnant and came back the next time I applied for a health department card and they told me about the [Healthy Families Fairfax] program," she said.

Healthy Families Fairfax is a free, voluntary program designed to prevent child abuse and child neglect by teaching young, inexperienced mothers how to nurture and raise their babies and young children. The program is open to all young mothers in need of assistance. Often the Health Department will identify such mothers and recommend the program to them. Fatiha, who is originally from Morrocco, has been in the program for a little over two years, and has seen positive results with her 19-month-old daughter Sara.

"I like this program. They help me a lot," says Fatiha. "I have many questions and sometimes I don't know the answers."

Healthy Families Fairfax is just one of many programs for which Great Falls resident and business owner Donna Klagholz is hoping to secure continued legislative and financial support. Klagholz, who is president of her own research and program evaluation firm, Donna D. Klagholz, Ph.D. & Associates, LLC, and one of the founders of non-profit organization The Mary C. Jackson Center for Family Research, recently met with Senator Janet Howell (D-32nd District) in Great Falls to discuss strategies for insuring continued funding and support for the goals of the national advocacy group Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America). Klagholz and members of her staff met with Senator Howell last week and the senator made it clear that she is more than happy to throw her support behind PCA America.

"I always support the Healthy Family budget legislation bills — sometimes I carry them," said Howell. "However, whatever the governor does it won't be enough — it can't be enough. So we have the double goal of protecting what the governor has done, and increasing it."

PCA America has four primary federal legislative priorities for 2005: increased appropriations for federal funding streams that support child abuse and neglect prevention — namely the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) and title IV-B (2) of the Social Security Act, Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF); increased congressional support for home visiting legislation, increased child care funding under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization, and increased federal investments in the full continuum of child welfare services.

"What's really nice about this [legislation] is that it's bi-partisan," says Howell. "At least one would hope that helping infants and children is non-partisan."

ONE OF THE CORE BELIEFS of PCA America is that the prevention of child abuse and neglect begins in the crucial first years of a child's life.

"At that 0-1 age, the research is so compelling," says Klagholz. "MRI's of abused children at that age just show a dark space."

According to Klagholz, babies who are nurtured and stimulated during the first year of their life exhibit healthier levels of physical and mental development as they grow older. That is where programs like Healthy Families Fairfax come into play. The program is targeted at this early developmental stage in a child's life.

"And if we get them [the mothers] in during the prenatal period, then they have an even better chance and better results," says Klagholz.

Kimberly Vaughan, a Family Support Worker with Healthy Families Fairfax/Oakton sees the significance of this period first hand. Vaughan says that her work with the mothers enrolled in the program have yielded "huge differences" in the development of their child's cognitive skills.

"It's amazing to see the difference you can make in people's lives," says Vaughan.

As a Family Support Worker, Vaughan is responsible for maintaining ongoing relationships with a number of young mothers and their children.

"If they are pregnant we help them prepare, if they have a young baby we help them choose activities and toys… we teach them how to understand their baby's needs. For example when babies are really young they tell you different things by the way they cry so we teach them how to identify what they need," says Vaughan.

Depending on the stage of motherhood, Vaughan conducts home visits once a week to once a month.

"The first six months is a Level 1 and I do a visit once a week. Level 2 is every other week and Level 3 is once a month. It goes up to age five, so we are basically weaning them off of the program," explains Vaughan.

During her visits, Vaughan addresses any problems and concerns that the mother may have, and she also brings along an educational activity to conduct with the child. Fatiha and Sara are one of Vaughan's mother-child assignments and Vaughan visits them at Fatiha's home every other week. Currently Vaughan is trying to assist Fatiha in registering for computer classes and English lessons. Fatiha works at McDonald's but would like to find a job in child care. Vaughan also discusses what is referred to as Fatiha's "Family Goal Plan."

"Right now it is to get Sara to concentrate on one thing at a time, so we have been trying to get her to sit down and focus," said Vaughan. "Fatiha says that she [Sara] wants to read all the time, so that's really, really good."

KLAGHOLZ AND HOWELL both want to support legislation that maintains programs such as Healthy Families Fairfax. Howell says that a major concern is to "protect the program from unadvised legislation," because "it starts the whole process off on the wrong foot."

Howell says an example of such unadvised legislation is a bill that proposes that no funds at any government level go to undocumented immigrants. According to Howell, this bill – which currently does not have a name – will probably come up for review before Congress in January or February of 2006. Since many of the women who participate in Healthy Families Fairfax are immigrants, Howell and Klagholz fear that the such stringent requirements will discourage too many mothers from coming forward for help.

"Some supporters [of the bill] are beginning to feel that they are maybe going too far with the children, but they aren't realizing that children come in the context of their parents," says Howell.

Senator Howell emphasized that while this particular bill poses a threat to immigrant mothers, "in most of the state we are dealing with native-born children whose parents need help," and that all child abuse prevention legislation needs support.