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Education Reporter

Alarm Over Threat to Parental Rights Grows
'Healthy Families America' is bringing 'Big Brother' home

WASHINGTON, DC - Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and the Alabama Family Alliance are sounding an alarm over the nationwide movement to place "home visitors" into the homes of all first-time parents, ostensibly to prevent child abuse. Hyde and others fear that this movement "sets a dangerous precedent" that threatens the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their own children. (See Parent Concerns About HFA Programs).

The model program for this plan is entitled "Healthy Families America" (HFA). It was developed by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA), now known as Prevent Child Abuse America. This organization was established in 1972 to increase awareness of the problem of child abuse. The plan calls for 50+ in-home visits annually per family for those considered most "at risk." The visits are to be conducted by paraprofessionals and trained volunteers for the purpose of educating parents on "proper parenting practices" and monitoring child development. Family contact may be initiated prenatally and continue through age five. Other responsibilities of the home visitor are to link families to health and social services until children enter school.

Last October, Congressman Hyde wrote a letter to his colleagues in the House of Representatives warning about HFA and describing the program as "the village mentality run wild." He said that HFA is " 'Big Brother' intervention as we have never seen it before," and that "Americans have never experienced such intrusion in their family lives."

HFA programs are currently operating in 40 states under a variety of names. All programs are labeled "voluntary," but the NCPCA's stated goal is "to provide home visiting services to all new parents." Special attention is given to those deemed to be at higher risk of abuse and neglect.

The Alabama Family Alliance is preparing an investigative report on HFA and other home visitation programs. It is slated for completion by mid-March. According to the Alliance, a family's level of risk is determined by screening hospital and (in some cases) clinic records on 15 risk factors. These risk factors include the age of the mother, divorce, late prenatal care, previous abortions, depression, etc. Some of the terms are so nebulous that almost any parent could be considered "at risk."

'Model' HFA Programs

The "Healthy Start" program was introduced in Hawaii in 1991. Currently, nearly 60% of all new mothers in that state are screened for potential risk, and legislation has been passed to expand the program to all the islands. In 1992, NCPCA adopted "Healthy Start" as the national model for child abuse prevention, and the concept has spread across the country.

Dianna Lightfoot
Dianna Lightfoot
Vermont's HFA program plan states: "The purpose of home visits is to assess the family's needs and to evaluate the family for child abuse potential" (emphasis added). It is not difficult to imagine how many parents might be labeled "at risk" due to an inexperienced, inadequately trained, or overly zealous home visitor.

In 1998, Indiana became another model state for HFA programs. Its promotional literature states: "We want to provide all families with a full range of health and social services in the community" (emphasis added). The literature boasts that the growth of HFA programs in the state is unprecedented. In just five years, the budget has risen from a quarter of a million dollars and only a few sites to nearly $40 million, and 58 sites in 91 counties. All of Indiana's locations use electronic data collection systems that report an extensive array of client data, and plans are being made to electronically transfer this data to a centralized location.

According to Hyde's letter, HFA data will be kept in a nationwide computerized tracking system called the "Program Information Management System" (PIMS), and could be combined with preschool and public school tracking systems when children enter the education system.

Assessing the 'crisis' of child abuse

The Carnegie Foundation has reported that its three-year study of American children shows that "millions of infants and toddlers are so deprived of medical care, loving supervision, and intellectual stimulation, that their growth into healthy and responsible adults is threatened." However, the most recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) on managing child welfare offers a different view. It states that, of 69.5 million American children, about three million are reported as possible victims of abuse and neglect (1996 figures). "Upon investigation, however, child protective services workers confirmed maltreatment of almost a third (about one million) of these reported children." Of those, about a fourth were severe cases that included physical and sexual abuse.

Dianna Lightfoot, director of the Physician's Resource Council (the medical division of the Alabama Family Alliance) who is also director of the home visitation program study, stresses: "Any abuse of a child is abhorrent. But it must be pointed out that the 'crisis' of millions and millions of children being abused and neglected, for which the radical 'cure' of in-home visitation to all new parents is needed, is greatly exaggerated."

"The intentions of most 'experts' are good, but government-sponsored, one-size-fits-all policies have been ineffective," Lightfoot explains. "The problem of abuse has not gone away despite the efforts of more than two decades of various prevention policies. The federal government alone already spends over $14 billion a year on child protection services."

Congressman Hyde's letter states that HFA is partially funded by the "Safe and Stable Families" program, which was reauthorized in 1997 under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act. He suggests that Congress should review the law in light of the "inherent dangers" of HFA programs.

Meanwhile, HFA is seeking additional funds, including reimbursements from managed care organizations (HMOs), whose primary goal is to prevent health problems. Since HFA programs are being touted as prevention and cost containment measures, based on the claim that they prevent a host of future problems related to abuse, the HMOs are listening. Another possible source of funds is Medicaid. One NCPCA report on funding programs notes, "The definition of 'at risk' in Medicaid is so broad that it should easily include home visitation."

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