By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Children’s advocates say a report released Wednesday on the welfare of children in Tennessee supports their belief that more preventive care programs will benefit youth long term, as well as save the state money.
The Kids Count report, partially funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focused on children’s well-being, but also examined how the state spends funds to improve the lives of children.
Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said universal prevention services have the lowest per child cost and the greatest cost-benefit potential because of their ability to prevent downstream costs.
However, they received the least funding, according to the report compiled by the commission.
“They tend to be the things that go by the wayside when you have budget cuts,” O’Neal told The Associated Press. “And so it really does raise the point that the investments we make now are very important for the future.”
Despite improvements in recent years, the report noted that Tennessee continues to rank in the bottom 10 in the nation on both low-birth-weight babies and infant mortality.
Preventive services cited by O’Neal to help remedy the problem include home visiting programs that work with pregnant women or parents soon after a baby is born “to ensure the baby gets off to a good start.”
Another service she believes has long-term prevention aspects is the state’s public pre-kindergarten program. The report said Tennessee has made improvements in the proportion of children graduating from high school, and cited pre-K as a factor for continual progress.
“Pre-K programs, Race to the Top and other school improvement efforts are longer term strategies to improve high school graduation rates,” the report said.
Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam told the AP he’s considering a funding boost to the pre-K program, which was begun as a $10 million pilot project for about 150 classrooms under Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1998.
Under his Democratic successor, Phil Bredesen, the program was expanded by nearly 800 classrooms statewide to serve more than 18,000 children at an annual cost of about $85 million.
“There’s a whole range of research that shows that when you provide quality pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk children, you improve their prospects for doing well in school, and also reduce the likelihood that they’ll be involved later in things like substance abuse and juvenile delinquency,” O’Neal said.
Molly Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Department of Children’s Services, said the agency provides resources for child abuse prevention programming across the state.
“The department has moved to the use of evidence-based practices in its prevention efforts due to the need to prioritize proven results,” she said.
Michele Johnson, a managing attorney with the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit law and advocacy group, said the lack of preventive care leads to costly health care that eventually hit taxpayers’ wallets.
“It’s kind of like low-hanging fruit,” Johnson said. “Why haven’t we invested in something that will yield so many more benefits?”
Charlotte Bryson, executive director Tennessee Voices for Children, agreed.
“Providing information, training, education, and support for families and child care providers and educators has proven to be the most direct and effective method for ensuring that children’s social and emotional development is on track, as well as for improving their development,” she said.