Advocates See Impacts from Sequester, Brace for More

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Window Rock Unified School DistrictIn the lead-up to federal budget sequestration, advocates warned of dire consequences for services to children and youth. Now, with sequestration in effect for nearly two months, impacts are materializing across the country, although some programs have been at least partially spared. Head Start programs nationally and some school districts have already been affected, while child care programs and the Women, Infants and Children program have received some relief from the expected deep cuts. In many cases, youth-serving organizations still do not know how they will be impacted, only that there will be impacts.

In February, as the likelihood grew that sequestration would go into effect, advocacy group First Focus estimated in a fact sheet that sequestration would reduce funding for education by $2.1 billion, child welfare by $124 million, and health by $243 million. Those cuts would include 144,000 fewer children being vaccinated, almost 296,000 fewer special education students receiving services, and 70,000 fewer children being served by Head Start programs. Ed Walz, vice president of communications for First Focus, said he was “struck by the breadth and depth of impacts for children” that were likely, since the sequester would touch so many areas of vital importance to children and families – from child abuse and neglect prevention to poison control.

With sequestration now a reality, many services for children and youth have in fact felt the impacts.

Education

According to a 2012 survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more than three-quarters of respondents said their school districts would need to cut jobs due to sequestration. School districts that are particularly dependent on federal funding have been among the hardest hit. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in a blog post last month about the sequester’s impacts on education: “It is a particular shame that among the earliest and worst hurt are schools that serve large numbers of military families and those on tribal land serving Native American students.”  

Illustrating his point, Duncan described the impacts on Window Rock Unified School District in Fort Defiance, Ariz., which is considering closing three of its seven schools, has already eliminated 40 staff positions this year in anticipation of federal funding cuts and expects to cut another 35 teachers and 30 other staff next year.

Head Start programs across the country have also been confronted with reduced federal funding, and programs are handling these cuts in a range of ways, explained Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN), an alliance of national organizations focused on the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. In response to the sequester, Head Start programs have cut transportation services, halted funding for teachers’ retirement plans, planned to close a few weeks early for the summer, cut staff, or—a last resort for many programs—dropped children from the program.  

Youth with Disabilities

Youth with special needs are also feeling the sequester’s effects. For instance, Lee County, Florida, recently decided that anticipated declines in federal funding required cutting the jobs of 100 paraprofessionals and specialists, most of whom would normally be working with special needs children and other youth who need extra attention. Lee County is unlikely to be alone in this. The National Council on Disability has estimated that 30.7 million special education students will be impacted by sequester cuts and that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) would lose 28 percent of its funding. The Center for American Progress has similarly highlighted the sequester’s impacts on children and adults with disabilities, including the 1,163,607 children who would not receive care for special health needs due to federal program cuts.

Child Welfare        

Although foster care payments were exempted from sequester cuts, several other child welfare initiatives, such as the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Treatment programs and the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, are losing funding, noted First Focus’s Walz. Cutting these prevention programs, he said, is “penny wise but pound foolish,” explaining that “you can't pretend that kids live in silos--specific programs that are being funded or not are connected to a whole life for a child.” For example, for children already in foster care, sequester-related cuts to housing assistance for their parents (see Housing below) may delay reunification with their families.

Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs, which provide volunteers to advocate for youth in foster care, will also be impacted by sequestration. Andrea Sparks, director of public affairs for Texas CASA, said her state, along with many others, uses Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA) funding to support CASA programs. She said the fines and fees, collected from people who have committed crimes, are put into a fund that goes to victims, as well as to programs that serve them, such as CASA programs, children’s advocacy centers, rape crisis centers and others. VOCA funds are being reduced by 5.1 percent due to the sequester. “It’s unfortunate because we’re seeing more victims, especially of child abuse and neglect, in Texas, but we have less money to spend,” Sparks said. Funding losses have amplified effects at CASA, she noted, because CASA’s work is volunteer driven. The loss of a single staff member could mean the loss of 30 volunteers who can no longer be supervised.

The National CASA Association, a network of local CASA programs, is also expecting cuts, according to Carmela Welte, deputy CEO of the organization. Although the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has not yet given official numbers, National CASA is anticipating a 9 percent reduction in the funding it passes on to local programs through subgrants, which would mean more than 1,000 children would lose CASA advocates.

Advocacy for parents in child welfare cases could suffer as well. Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said his agency will lose $92,000 of its Legal Services Corporation funding due to the sequester. In addition to representing parents in child abuse and neglect cases to try to keep families together and promote family stability, his staff represents individuals in domestic violence, housing, health, and benefits cases—all of which can affect children and families, explained Glazier.

Glazier said, due to past cuts, his organization has already laid off two attorneys working on family court matters, so these new sequester-related cuts “keep us from being able to fill in the gaps from previous cuts, and have an eroding effect on our ability to meet the needs of families.”

The sequester will also impact services for youth involved with the courts in juvenile justice matters. (See sidebar on juvenile justice.)

Housing and Employment

Cuts to housing assistance are one of the most widely documented areas of sequester impact, and for many low-income families, including those involved with or at risk of entering the child welfare system, affordable, safe housing is a critical need.

Since early March, the Coalition on Human Needs has been collecting information on local impacts of sequestration and publishing weekly summaries. In addition to reports of Head Start and school district cuts, impacts on housing for low-income families figure prominently. CHN’s most recent update, for instance, highlighted stories about a Missouri program losing a grant for housing pregnant teenagers and a Connecticut agency rescinding a Section 8 housing voucher for a homeless woman and her newborn.

According to First Focus’s Walz, children also may be impacted by the broader economic effects on their parents from sequestration, such as layoffs or furloughs, since parents’ employment troubles can create a range of stresses on kids.

Some are Spared – For Now 

In a few areas, however, cuts weren’t as dire as advocates feared.

Congress exempted a certain number of low-income entitlement programs and added some money for child care and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, said CHN’s Weinstein. Most states therefore have been able to avoid cutting child care, and the WIC program will likely not need to make cuts this fiscal year. However, a spike in food prices, another economic downturn, or some other unexpected event could still hamper these programs’ abilities to provide services, as could future budget reductions. “There’s no safety net for the safety net,” said First Focus’s Ed Walz.

The implications for kids of budget decisions aren’t always felt until years later, Walz said. Cuts made in 2011 are having an impact in states today, he explained, so while sequestration’s impacts are starting to become evident now, they will be felt for years to come.

If any readers are seeing impacts from the sequester in their own communities, they are invited to contact the author by email:

lisa@childfamilypolicy.com

Lisa Pilnik, JD, MS, is a freelance writer, consultant, and co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm.

Photo courtesy of Window Rock Az. Unified School District