Inspiring Okeechobee: Healthy Families Florida, Small staff, mighty warriors

OKEECHOBEE — In a small, nondescript office building, great things are being done for families in our community. They are preventing child abuse one family at a time. In fact, most days, they don’t spend much time in the office at all. This program is Healthy Families Florida, which is a part of Helping People Succeed, whose main office is in Martin County. In July 2007, Healthy Families Florida, expanded to Okeechobee County. Since the program’s inception, the staff has served close to 400 families and over 750 children. The services are voluntary and free to the families who commit to the program. Currently, the staff of six serve 127 families with 322 children, by providing in-home services to the families in need.

Left to right in the photo: Sylvia Vasquez, Cortney Crews, Gina Ortiz, Tobi Cross, Marializbeth Gonzalez and Alexandra Navarrete.

In 2015-2016 the per capita rate of victims of alleged child abuse/neglect in Okeechobee County was 17.12 (738 alleged victims and 161 verified victims).

Of those enrolled in the Healthy Families program, many are among those at the highest degree of risk yet less than 1 percent of the children had verified findings of abuse during program participation. The families who successfully graduated from the program had NO verified findings within 12 months of completing the program, and 95 percent three years’ post-graduation.

Investing in proven services designed to support the most vulnerable in the earliest stages of life and at the same time, helping parents and families become independent and self-sufficient are among the most common-sense strategies to improve the well-being of Florida’s most vulnerable families and their children. The Healthy Families Florida program combines both strategies as a nationally accredited, evidence-based home visiting program that has been demonstrated to prevent child abuse and neglect and other positive outcomes in Florida’s highest risk families through parent education and empowerment. By preventing child abuse and neglect before it ever begins, the program also saves state taxpayers’ dollars through reduced costs related to caring for an abused or neglected child.

Families served by Healthy Families have multiple risk factors that place their children at risk of abuse and neglect. These research-based risk factors include incomes below 200 percent poverty; single parent households; possessing neither a high school diploma or General Education Diploma (GED); experienced abuse as a child; having multiple children younger than five years of age; experiencing mental health issues, substance abuse or domestic violence; having unrealistic expectations about developmental milestones; and having a parent-verbalized need to physically punish a child one year old or younger. Healthy Families Florida was established in 1998.

Investing in the quality prevention services provided through Healthy Families Florida is more efficient, cost-effective and compassionate than waiting to intervene until after child abuse and neglect begins and lifelong damage or child death occurs.

Healthy Families Florida intervenes early, during pregnancy or shortly after a child is born (up to three months of age). Healthy Families Florida’s highly trained home visitors help parents understand and support their infant’s healthy development; provide responsive, nurturing care; and ensure a safe, stimulating environment. Healthy Families also promotes parents’ responsibility by working with them to improve their own education, find employment and build stronger, more stable relationships with the people in their lives which lead to better outcomes for children.

Healthy Families equips parents to overcome their challenges and provide their children with safe, nurturing experiences that promote healthy growth and development.

As of June 2016, in the Healthy Families Martin-Okeechobee program:

• 99 percent of children were free from abuse and neglect during services and 100 percent one year following completion of services.

• 96 percent of mothers did not have a subsequent pregnancy within two years.

• 98 percent of participants and 99 percent of their children were connected to a primary healthcare provider.

• 90 percent of participants improved their self-sufficiency by gaining employment, earning their GED, high school diploma or college degree, enrolling in job training, finding stable housing, learning English as a second language, attending literacy classes or obtaining a driver’s license.

The statistics only tell a part of the story though. It is the relationships that the staff builds over time with each recipient. Many times, young parents in our community do not have adequate support systems. With young children, we all know that it just takes one thing to happen for there to be family strife: a medical illness, lack of work, limited family support, or other risk factors. Healthy Families offers support to those who face these challenges.

In April, Healthy Families joins organizations across the nation to recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month. There will be pinwheels displayed outside the office in recognition of this solemn reminder of what could have been prevented. The pinwheel serves as a reminder of the great childhoods all children deserve.

Healthy Families will also be seeking April Showers donations to assist their families with comfort items such as: diapers, wipes, baby wash, receiving blankets, infant/toddler clothing, crib sheets, educational toys/games for children under age five. These items or a donation can be taken to their office located at 504 N.W. Second St. Okeechobee, Fla., or you can contact their local office by phone: 863-623-5119.

The prevention of child abuse and neglect is personal to me. As an adoptive mother, undoing the years of trauma from abuse and neglect, is something that could have been prevented. You don’t have to work as a child welfare worker, GAL, foster or adopt children to lend your hand. Helping those who are in need by giving a small item is another way! If we are not the ones who do the work, we can support those who do! Thank you, Healthy Families Martin-Okeechobee staff for inspiring our community for the quiet yet mighty work you do to help our families.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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