Parenting is an awesome responsibility and a tremendous privilege. It’s rewarding to watch our children learn, grow and thrive. Most parents work hard to give their children the best opportunities and ensure they feel safe and loved.
But parenting can be a tough job, even under the best of circumstances. Tension and conflict often increase when parents encounter stressful circumstances such as raising children alone, facing unemployment or homelessness, or suffering from substance addiction or poor mental health. Sometimes parents need extra help to create loving homes where children can thrive.
April is recognized in Florida and throughout the nation as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Gov. Rick Scott and first lady Ann Scott, state legislators, community leaders, child welfare professionals and child advocates participate in activities and outreach to share the message that everyone plays a role in preventing child abuse and neglect. This is a good time to assess the well-being of the children around us and consider our efforts to help children and their families succeed. A community can take action to prevent child abuse and neglect by supporting activities that strengthen families. One community-based program that successfully strengthens families while preventing child abuse and neglect is Healthy Families Florida.
In 1998, the Florida Legislature created Healthy Families Florida, a voluntary program for expectant parents and parents of newborns experiencing stressful life situations. Family support workers are invited into families’ homes and provide guidance on parenting techniques, independent living skills and healthy child development. Parents learn to recognize and respond to their babies’ developmental needs, use positive discipline techniques and cope with the stress of parenting.
Families in all 67 Florida counties have access to Healthy Families Florida services. Last year more than 17,400 children in 9,600 families benefited from the program. Backed by decades of research and founded on strict quality standards, the program has proven to be highly successful in preventing child abuse and neglect. In fact, 98 percent of children are free of abuse and neglect while enrolled in Healthy Families Florida and 95 percent remain free of abuse and neglect three years following completion of the program.
Building on these successful outcomes for families, we continuously seek ways to improve and offer more assistance. Targeted Healthy Families sites now offer mental health services and coordinate behavioral health care for families experiencing substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health concerns or other challenges threatening their ability to succeed.
Investing in programs proven to prevent child abuse and neglect is far less costly than treating the consequences of child abuse after it occurs. The annual cost of providing services in response to child abuse — child welfare, hospitalization, juvenile justice and special education — exceeds $105,000 per child, whereas Healthy Families effectively prevents child abuse and neglect for an average of $2,100 per child. Prevention services are a sound investment in our families that pay dividends for generations.
JENNIFER OHLSEN, TALLAHASSEE
Editor’s note: Jennifer Ohlsen is the executive director of Healthy Families Florida.