Editorial: Ill-advised budget cut was mercifully brief
Kudos to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire for doing the hard work of following the money – or, in this case, the lack of money.
Carsey, which regularly conducts policy research on vulnerable children, youth and families, this week released the results of a study into the effect of one particularly ill-advised cut to the state budget back in 2011. That year, over the objections of then-Gov. John Lynch, lawmakers approved a spending plan that drastically cut spending on human services, including help aimed at keeping wayward kids from criminal behavior.
The CHINS program, which stands for “Children in Need of Services” was set up to help the families of children behaving badly – skipping school, running away, violating curfews, drinking alcohol. The idea was to set them on a better path before they progressed to more serious offenses and landed in the criminal justice system. In 2011, legislators changed the rules of the program so that only those children with the most severe emotional problems were eligible for help.
The result, according to Carsey: not good. As might have been expected, there was a drastic drop in the number of families served. In 2011, 751 families were served by the program; by the low point in 2013, just 89 were receiving help from the state. The responsibility was downshifted to already-strapped local law enforcement and schools, which no longer had the court-ordered support that the CHINS program previously provided. Some school administrators also reported increased truancy problems as a result.
Researchers quoted one police officer, who described his interaction with frustrated parents: “Unfortunately we (had) to tell parents, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you. . . . You have to wait until your kid commits a crime. You have to wait until your kid pushes you or threatens to hurt you or breaks something of yours before we can get involved.’ Then we can charge the kid criminally and bring him through the court system.”
During the same period, Carsey researchers found an increase in reports of child neglect and abuse. Is there a connection? Bad behavior by children is often an indicator of bigger issues – child neglect or substance abuse by parents. Court-ordered treatment under the CHINS program often addressed these problems.
The good news: New Hampshire’s reckless experiment was mercifully brief. After a change of the guard at the State House, newly elected lawmakers restored funding and broadened eligibility for the program this year.
All of this makes recent comments from state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a Republican candidate for the 2nd District seat in Congress, disheartening.
Garcia this week released a public statement in reaction to the new federal budget agreement headlined “I cut spending while serving in the state Legislature and will take that much-needed experience to Washington.” She went on to boast about cutting state spending by 18 percent. And she argued that while the indiscriminate nature of the federal “sequestration” cuts were not ideal, they did force Washington to cut the budget.
“Indiscriminate” is the key word here. The state budget Garcia cites did real harm, not just to the families cited in the Carsey study but also to students trying to pay for college and to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including those with mental illness. It’s not a winning platform for a campaign for Congress.