The Advocate (Louisiana), June 16, 2008: Study: La. last in child welfare

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Even as the Louisiana Legislature considers bills to improve the quality of life for children, a national study again found Louisiana ranks last in child well-being.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation۪s 2008 Kids Count data book, released late last week, ranks Louisiana 49th out of 50 states a place Louisiana has ranked at least the past decade.

The Casey Foundation۪s mission is to foster public policies and community support, as well as provide some funding to state agencies, to help children and families.

Their annual report profiles each state on such factors as child and teen death rates, births to teenage mothers, high school dropouts, children living in poverty, and proficiency in reading and math.

“Chances are if you۪re a child in Louisiana, you have a greater risk of seeing one of those negative outcomes,” said Teresa Falgoust with the Agenda for Children in New Orleans.

Louisiana is worse than the national average in every area covered in the report except one: the percent of children without health insurance. In 2005, 10 percent of the state۪s children did not have health insurance, 1 percentage point less than the national average.

Alan Levine, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said they are making a concentrated effort to expand the Louisiana Child Health Insurance Program, a special Medicaid program for children in families of low to moderate incomes. Since January, the department has signed 11,000 children into the program, he said.

The state health department proposed expanding its Nurse-Family Partnership Program, through which low-income, first-time parents are visited by a nurse two times a week to assist with prenatal care, health and lifestyle practices, and plans for future education and employment.

Sen. Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, sponsored legislation this session asking DHH to study the expansion of the partnership program.

Mount, chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said legislators are seeing a greater push of evidence-based, preventative measures.

“We know that if we spend dollars cautiously and carefully in the right way, the end result is less money being spent,” Mount said. “I think we۪re headed in the right direction.”

Senate Concurrent Resolution 70 is awaiting final approval in the House.

But budget cuts proposed to many departments threaten some of the programs that state officials say are so important to turning around Louisiana۪s trends.

Money to expand the nurse partnership program was included in the proposed state budget legislation for next year but was removed as the measure passed out of the House.

The proposed budget also includes no funding for a similar program with the Department of Social Services, or DSS, which places licensed social workers in homes that are at risk of child abuse or neglect.

Marketa Garner Gautreau, assistant secretary of DSS۪s Office of Community Services, said she plans on cutting elsewhere in her office in order to keep the program running.

“Until and unless this state and its citizens decide that they really want to improve the quality of life for children, we will stay 49th or 50th in this ranking,” Gautreau said. “Until we۪re willing to spend money on the front end, we will never change the outcomes.”

Knowing that poverty is connected to many of the factors the state is falling short on, DSS is growing an initiative called Solutions to Poverty, which is made up of several programs seeking to help families reach self-sufficiency.

Reducing the state۪s child poverty rate is the primary goal of legislation introduced by state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, that would create the Child Poverty Prevention Council. Senate Bill 660, which is waiting final approval in the House, would allow the council to pursue programs to reduce child poverty in the state by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

“If we could get the poverty rate down we would see a lot of those areas improve because they۪re so interconnected,” said Teresa Falgoust, who is the state۪s Kids Count coordinator.

Falgoust said child welfare agencies are hoping the report gets the public and legislators to take a closer look at what is happening to children in the state.

The state has taken the initiative to combine its efforts, as seen through another Mount-sponsored bill passing in the Legislature this session that requires state departments to combine their case management efforts. So a person coming in for food stamps will also be directed to other child care, health insurance and job training assistance.

That measure, Senate Bill 701, is awaiting final approval in the House.

“I think this is a really good opportunity for departments to start talking to each other to make sure families are getting all they need to thrive,” Falgoust said.

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