Commentary: Investing in Families Strengthens Communities

Commentary: Investing in Families Strengthens Communities

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

The Fairfax County proposed $7.13 billion budget for fiscal year 2016 comes at devastating cost for the most vulnerable families in our community. Included in the budget is the complete elimination of Healthy Families, a nationally recognized, evidence-based child abuse and neglect prevention program that serves hundreds of at-risk families. By eliminating this program, the total “savings” to the county would equal approximately $1.6 million now, but could amount to unforeseen future costs for schools, human services, public safety and more.

Established in 1991, the Healthy Families Fairfax program provides comprehensive and intensive home visiting services to expectant and new parents whose children may be at risk for poor childhood outcomes. As an accredited affiliate of the national Healthy Families America network, the program promotes positive parenting skills and optimal child health and development as a means of preventing child abuse and neglect among fragile families living in Fairfax County.

In Healthy Families, home visits allow Family Support Workers to establish a trusting relationship with young parents, with the goal of helping the family move toward greater self-reliance. Along the way, staff ensures that the child’s medical needs and developmental benchmarks are being met, and that parents are learning age-appropriate activities to encourage learning and growth. Many Family Support Workers are also able to identify other needed services for their families, and are able to leverage additional community resources that parents might not be able to obtain otherwise.

For the past 23 years, Healthy Families Fairfax has proven to be a wise investment of taxpayer’s money. Since its inception, the program has met or exceeded all state mandated goals, an excellent return on an investment of only $3,473 per family per year. Last year, Healthy Families Fairfax served 613 at-risk Fairfax County families. Of these 613 at-risk families:

  • 97 percent of the children were born at normal birth weight. Healthy Families services provide better birth outcomes including a 50 percent reduction in the number of babies born at low birth weight, saving an average of $15,000 in hospitalization costs for each preterm/low birth weight baby.
  • 82 percent of the children were up to date on immunizations, a higher rate than both state (70.4 percent) and national (69.2 percent) levels. Healthy Families services ensure children are connected with a regular medical provider and support families in their efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle which, in turn, helps prevent chronic problems and keeps health care costs in check.
  • 100 percent of children with suspected developmental delays were referred to therapeutic early intervention services. Healthy Families services provide early detection of developmental delays, helping to decrease the number of children in need of special education services — a savings of $12,900 a year per child.
  • 94 percent of the families demonstrated healthy parent-child interactions based on nationally validated assessments. Healthy Families services enhance parent-child interactions and increase protective factors associated with the prevention of child maltreatment and neglect in the homes of disadvantaged families, potentially saving $78,658 per year for one child in foster care.
  • 99.4 percent of families had no substantiated case of child abuse or neglect based on Virginia Department of Social Service reports. Healthy Families services reduce the incidence of child and abuse and neglect by half, a tremendous saving given that child maltreatment costs between $210,012 and $1,272,900 over the lifetime of each victim.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors faces many difficult decisions when deciding upon budget priorities in the coming year, but we urge our legislators not to make budget reductions at the expense of our most vulnerable families and children. As University of Chicago Professor and Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman said in regard to early childhood, “The question is not where to cut. The question is where to invest, and in what.” We believe that it is in all of our best interests to continue investing in Healthy Families Fairfax.

Written by: Mary Agee, president and CEO, Northern Virginia Family Service; Nichelle A. Mitchem, JD, executive director, United Community Ministries; Kerrie Wilson, chief executive officer, Cornerstones.

The writers are three executive directors of the nonprofits that administer Healthy Families in Fairfax County.