WILKES-BARRE — There were statistics, of course: 10,355 children in poverty in Luzerne County, only 475 of them getting help through four home-visiting agencies.
But there was also Alyssa Hudock, a 21-year-old Pittston resident with three children. Thanks to the help she got through one of those agencies, she graduated from college, got a job and is looking to buy a home.
“There’s never too much help,” Hudock said after telling her story at a media conference Thursday to highlight a new push for increased funding for home-visit programs. “Everyone is here to make you better, to make the community better.”
Hudock was one of small crowd gathered at the Head Start center on Beekman Street for the launch of the “Childhood Begins at Home” campaign, an effort to raise awareness of four agencies: Early Head Start, Healthy Families America, Nurse-Family Partnership and Parents as Teachers.
All four operate by sending people to the home of parents in need of support raising pre-school children, and the phrase used repeatedly to justify more money was “evidence based.” Joan Benso, president of the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, put it this way:
“The need is quite clear. The education and resources provided through these programs truly help development of our most vulnerable children,” she said. “Years of literature and evidence and studies tell us it reduces child abuse, reduces child neglect, improves family literacy and early literacy, improves maternal health and child health outcomes, and reduces poverty.
“So why wouldn’t we want to invest in things that work that well? That is the question the ‘Childhood Begins at Home’ campaign is asking.”
Benso offered statistics that Luzerne County Head Start Executive Director Lynn Biga called “truly sobering.” Statewide, 90 percent of children born under Medicaid don’t get the home-visit help that would likely improve their health; 96 percent of children living in low income homes don’t get the visits that can help the family climb out of poverty; and 79 percent of children up to age 5 who are known by child welfare agencies to be potentially at risk don’t get the visits that could prevent abuse or neglect.
‘Worth every dollar’
The four agencies get a combined total of about $60 million in state and federal funding, and the campaign is hoping to get $6.5 million more added to the state budget. “That would serve about 800 families statewide,” Benso said.
The increase requested would be small in meeting the potential need. When asked what it would cost to get home-visiting services to all the families who could benefit, Benso conceded “we don’t know and we’re not going to figure it out.” That’s because it can be tricky to get a solid idea of all those who would be eligible and would benefit from the services.
But Biga had one example that provides an inkling. She said there are 202 children in the local Early Head Start program, and 218 on a waiting list. With each child costing about $14,000, it would take about $3 million to serve all those on the waiting list.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, attended the event and offered staunch support, though she admitted she is “just one vote” in Harrisburg and the trick is to get people to prioritize limited dollars. She praised Hudock as a good example of how programs like Early Head Start can pay for themselves. “You show that people not only benefit from the system, but that the system is giving you a hand up.”
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis also attended to offer her support. “Our office is often reactive,” she said, adding that the people caught in the local justice system are “younger and younger.” She said the home-visit programs can help prevent children from turning to crime or substance abuse. “It is worth every dollar.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish