Families fear losing support centers

Md. cuts expected to shut some facilities that offer child care, training to poor

April 03, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

At the Park Heights Family Support Center, parents study for the GED test, learn to cook and sew, and fill out resumes. Over the past few months, they've acquired a more unexpected skill: Lobbying.

Armed with strollers, bottles and lively children, the clients of this center and 26 others around the state have descended on Annapolis to try to persuade Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to reverse a 26 percent cut in state funding for the support centers, which offer child care while parents are trying to improve their prospects in work and life.

Barring a reprieve, seven or eight of the centers almost surely will have to close, said Margaret Williams, executive director of Friends of the Family, the nonprofit organization that runs the centers along with other community groups.

"It's sadder than sad," Williams said of the proposed cuts. "As a taxpayer, it doesn't make sense to me to defund something like this, especially because it's babies and fragile families -- the people who need it the most."

As dire as the family support centers' plight seems to Williams, it's but one scene in the drama unfolding for those who depend on state funding to provide services to the young and poor -- and for officials wrestling with a $1.3 billion budget deficit.

Funding also has been cut for child care resource centers, lead paint abatement and after-school programs. Education advocates have been lobbying for the funding formula crafted by the Thornton Commission to improve public schools. And Ehrlich's staff has warned that the cuts will only get worse if legislators fail to approve slot machines at Maryland racetracks, which seems highly unlikely after a House panel rejected the bill yesterday.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is leaving open the possibility of a second supplemental budget to reverse some cuts. "But I couldn't comment just yet on what specific programs might be in one," he said.

As Lakeshia Pate watches her 1-year-old son stride across the room with the confidence of a child months older, she sees the Park Heights center at work -- and the possibilities that could soon be lost to the budget axe.

"He's been walking since he was 9 months," Pate says proudly of Timonta Brown, the younger of her two boys. "I think it's because he's been coming here."

Since 1995, the family support center has transformed a church parish house into an animated place filled with puzzles, car seats, and the sounds of young children. While they play and learn downstairs, their parents take classes upstairs.

The center serves about 100 families a year. Since June, 10 mothers have taken the General Educational Development test, and six have passed. While the centers are open to any parent of a child younger than age 4, more than three-quarters of the 3,907 families served at centers around the state received some form of public assistance.

State funding provides about half of what it takes to run 27 centers, a grant that amounted to about $230,000 per center last year. The rest is made up by federal and foundation grants, and by nonprofits that help sponsor centers, such as Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, which runs the Park Heights center.

Karen Heyward-West, director of adolescent services at Family and Children's Services, said her organization would likely have to pull out of the Park Heights program if it shared equally in the $1.8 million cut levied by the Ehrlich administration. "I can tell you ... we couldn't afford to do it," she said.

Pate, 24, was one of the citizen lobbyists for the program. She remembers well the time when she was afraid to leave her children anywhere while she worked toward her GED, after learning that an earlier day care provider wasn't feeding her older son or changing his diapers.

If the center closes, Pate said, she will have a swift reaction: "Go crazy."

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