Snohomish Health District parenting program in jeopardy

MARYSVILLE — Sarah Thomas smiled as she recounted the development of her 19-month-old son, Kaiden.

He helps her take silverware out of the dishwasher. He opens doors around their home “like a master.”

Kaiden loves to play with his toy bike, mirroring memories of her own childhood when she and her cousin rode dirt bikes together.

“I have a blast,” she said of the time she spends with her toddler.

But as Kaiden closes in the “terrible twos,” there are moments that test the skills of any parent.

“He’s starting his tantrums,” his mom said. And at a mall play area for kids, he pushed some children aside rather than waiting his turn.

Thomas, 21, was the discussing her parenting challenges with Snow Berger, a Snohomish Health District nurse, who sat next to Thomas in her living room.

Berger’s 90-minute, in-home visit is part of a program called the Nurse-Family Partnership, which has been in existence in Snohomish County since 1999.

It assists young, low-income, first-time moms by sending nurses to their homes early in the woman’s pregnancy. Its goal is to guide them with parenting issues and help provide a safe, nurturing environment for children and prevent abuse and neglect. Moms can participate until the children turn 2 years old.

In some cases, it helps moms cope with depression and other problems or battle drug or alcohol issues.

In Thomas’ case, Berger provided a lot of reassurance.

“You have great instincts,” she told her. “It’s good that you follow them.”

There’s little debate that young moms with new babies can use support and guidance.

The question is how best to do that.

Supporters of the Nurse-Family Partnership say it has long-term benefits. They cite national studies showing similar programs have helped reduce child abuse and neglect. Children whose moms participated in the program have less risky behaviors and fewer school suspensions, the studies say.

All this comes at a cost, however. In Snohomish County, it’s about $4,700 for each of the 132 families it will serve this year.

Last year, Snohomish County provided nearly $670,000 for the program. This year, that money is in jeopardy.

County Executive Aaron Reardon requested the same amount in his 2011 budget. In his budget, County Council Chairman Dave Gossett included no money for the program.

Two other County Council members, Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan, have suggested approving $509,197 next year for the program.

A public hearing on the county’s budget is scheduled for Monday.

The program’s future was also in question last year when the Snohomish Health District agency had three rounds of layoffs, cutting its workforce to the equivalent of 183 full-time positions.

Last year, the county’s allocation saved the program for one year. “It was never intended to be continuing,” said Gossett, who also serves on the health district board.

In part, this was because the health district itself put it on the list of programs to be cut last year, he said, despite his objections.

The money proposed for the program next year comes from a one-10th of 1 percent county tax to pay for mental health and drug and alcohol programs. With federal cuts coming to mental health and drug and alcohol programs, competition for the local tax money will be high, Gossett said.

Facing the prospect that the county’s $670,000 could be cut next year, the Snohomish Health District board is debating its future.

In part, this is because the health district has another program, called First Steps, that also assists new moms and babies.

It serves more moms, about 2,800. Instead of home visits, moms and their babies come to the health district for check ups until their babies are 1 year old.

The Nurse-Family Partnership assists fewer people in a more in-depth way, said Jeff Clarke, the health district’s deputy director. “The impact of being in the person’s home … that’s most likely a very big part of its success,” he said.

First Steps assists more people, but in a less comprehensive way for a shorter period, Clarke said.

Mountlake Terrace City Councilwoman Michelle Robles, who is on the health district board, said that budget cuts made to the health district last year were made under pressure.

“We were really cramming to do the budget last year. I don’t know we made the right choice,” she said.

Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, an Edmonds City Councilwoman who also serves on the health district board, said she has a family member who is participating in the Nurse-Family Partnership and has watched this young teen trying to raise a baby on her own.

“I do understand the need, probably better than just about anyone at this table,” she said. “The bottom line for me is … if we don’t cut this, what do we cut?”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Nurse-family partnerships

The Snohomish Health District program sends nurses to the home of low-income, first-time moms age 21 or under to provide a safe, healthy environment for infants and moms. The program begins during the woman’s pregnancy and can continue for up to two years following the child’s birth.

Who participates:

n This year, the program will serve 132 families.

n Through the first nine months of this year, 87 percent of families were on Medicaid.

n Some are families in the military.

n A single mom can have an income of no more than $2,247 a month to participate.

Source: Snohomish Health District

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