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Okla. child advocates criticize possible cuts

A children's advocacy group and others are criticizing the Oklahoma Department of Health for threatening to eliminate child abuse prevention program if the agency's budget is cut in the next fiscal year.

Health Department officials said last week that if the agency's budget is cut by 5 percent in the 2012 fiscal year, the Office of Child Abuse Prevention would be discontinued. Lawmakers are anticipating a budget hole of between $250 million and $600 million for the fiscal year that begins June 1, basically to make up for one-time funding used to balance this fiscal year's budget.

"We are disappointed that the state Health Department has chosen to make children political bait in this debate over budget cuts," Linda Terrell, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said.

The Health Department's Office of Child Abuse Prevention gets about $3 million of the $63.7 million the agency received this fiscal year from the Legislature, Terrell said. The office contracts with 20 agencies and groups across the state to provide home visitation services intended to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Oklahoma is the third-worst state in the number of child deaths, but the rate has improved in recent years.

"We are making strides," Terrell told The Oklahoman. "But as valuable child abuse prevention efforts are cut, more Oklahoma children could be at risk."

Mark Newman, director of state and federal policy for the state Health Department, said the agency is facing its third straight year of budget cuts.

In the past two years, the budget has been slashed by 15 percent, or about $5.5 million each year. During that time, funding for the Office of Child Abuse Prevention was reduced by less than 5 percent.

"We have to look at our core public health imperatives," he said. "That's not to say that children aren't important."

Core public health imperatives include checking safety of food in restaurants, disease prevention and responding to disease outbreaks, he said.

Officials hope the 20 contractors that are receiving state money will keep programs going, he said.

Charlie Swinton, a board member of the Parents Promise Program, said his group gets about 70 percent of its $500,000 annual budget from the Office of Child Abuse Prevention. He called the health department's decision a poor one.

"When you look at the number of cases of child abuse confirmed . you're talking about young people who in the development of their life are being abused," Swinton said. "Most studies show 80 percent of the people in prison were abused at one point, so these are people who are heading down the wrong path."

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com