Imagine yourself as a lawmaker in a large state faced with having to make difficult choices about terminating programs and endless budget cuts. But I have some good news for you. What if I told you that you can have -at no cost to you – access to an effective tool for promoting healthy parent-child relationships, one that leads to significant improvements across a range of maternal, child and family outcomes. What if I told you that participating in this program often leads to reduced prenatal smoking, fewer injury related healthcare visits for children, fewer unintended subsequent pregnancies and longer delay between first and second births, and increases in children’s school readiness and decreased use of welfare and food stamps. You almost certainly would jump at the chance to take advantage of this opportunity, right?

Well, last week, Florida lawmakers turned down more than $50 million in federal funding for just this type of program. Why? Because they felt it was okay to play politics with the lives of children.

The dollars in question were allocated for home visiting grants offered through the Affordable Care Act that passed last year. The funds would have paid for, among other things, a home visiting program modeled after Healthy Families America, an evidence-based initiative of Prevent Child Abuse America. Healthy Families America has been providing supportive home visiting services since 1992 and is considered a successful and proven program by the Rand Corporation.

Home visiting programs such as Healthy Families America serve low-income, often single and first-time mothers, through a series of home visits beginning before the child’s birth. These families are particularly vulnerable and often face a number of challenges, including living in relative isolation with access to limited social networks, substance abuse or mental health issues, current or past exposure to family violence, unstable housing, joblessness and poverty. In spite of these obstacles, data show that participants are making positive improvements.

Trained home visitors provide parents and other caregivers information, guidance and emotional and practical support. Program data suggest that families enrolled in Healthy Families America are healthier and use medical services more appropriately than others in the general population, accessing preventive health care services and achieving higher immunization rates. Participants are more likely to seek prenatal care, leading to fewer birth complications and low birth weight babies than individuals who did not receive services. Healthy Families America programs have been effective in improving mothers’ lives by facilitating their re-enrollment in school, making referrals for employment and housing, encouraging them to seek counseling for substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, the program helps delay subsequent pregnancies. Mothers who are more successful in delaying subsequent pregnancies are generally in a better position to complete school, obtain employment, leave welfare and provide more positive child-rearing environments for their children.

In Florida, programs have demonstrated measurable success. A five-year evaluation concluded that Healthy Families Florida has a significant impact on preventing child abuse and neglect in Florida’s highest-risk families. The study found that children in families who received intensive Healthy Families services experienced 58 percent less child abuse and neglect at 24 months than like families who received little or no Healthy Families services. Evaluators also concluded that Healthy Families services improve maternal and child health, parent-child interaction and increase family self-sufficiency. Ninety-two percent of mothers participating in Healthy Families Florida did not have a subsequent pregnancy within two years. In addition, 81 percent of participants who completed the program improved their education level, received job training or became gainfully employed while enrolled in the program. Also, mothers who participated in Healthy Families Florida for three or more years were significantly more likely to read to their children.

Sadly, Healthy Families Florida has rarely received support from Florida’s Republican-led legislature. In fact, lawmakers cut the program’s funding from $28 million to $18 million from budget year 2010 to budget year 2011. Why? Pure politics. According to a quote in a July 20 Miami Herald Story on the decision to reject $50 million for child-abuse prevention, State Sen. Joe Negron, Chairman of his chamber’s Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he is philosophically opposed to Healthy Families. As he explained, “I believe in providing basic information to parents at hospitals and medical settings…I am not persuaded that it is a good idea to show up at a family’s home year after year giving advice and guidance. I do not think that is a core, essential function of government.”

Even more troubling, the Miami Herald story points out that the federal Race to the Top educational-reform effort is tied to the child-abuse prevention program that Healthy Families administers and as a result, the state may also lose a four-year block grant worth an additional $100 million in federal dollars.

The Affordable Care Act includes $1.5 billion over 5 years in mandatory funding for an innovative Home Visitation Grant Program for States. It provides funding for formula grants to States at $100 million for FY2010; $250 million in FY2011; $350 million for FY2012; $400 million for FY2013; and $400 million for FY2014.

Maybe it’s time for Florida’s lawmakers to start making decisions based on what’s good for the children rather than what’s good for their party.