Opinion Columns & Blogs

Rose Mary Mohr: Prevention pays but is low priority

Having worked for more than 50 years in prevention and intervention programs for people who have disabilities, I have made the following conclusions:

* Intervention is a priority when the indicators for the disorder or impairment are serious enough to affect the larger community, as demonstrated in the public threat to safety or the related costs incurred. As health care and mental health services spiral in cost, alternatives are being sought to contain, if not reduce, costs being shouldered by both individuals and government resources.

* Prevention has had a lower priority. Certainty that it works has been in question for many years, though current research indicates that prevention programs are effective, if appropriately implemented. Too often prevention is implemented as an early intervention — at a point, for instance, when children are facing school suspension or expulsion, are at risk for out-of-home placement, or are having contact with the juvenile justice system.

We, as a community, are giving priority to intervention targeted to the most seriously impaired individuals. Whether they are people with mental illness or youths on a path of abuses, violence and crime, we are limiting funding to those at the highest levels of need.

Maybe during these times of economic recession and budget deficits that is all we can do. We should be aware, however, that as that occurs we will be dismantling the infrastructure and services in prevention that work.

For example, the Girl Empowerment Program conducted by the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas targets girls whose patterns of behavior put them at risk for substance abuse, violence and juvenile delinquency. Many, if not most, of the girls being served have experienced trauma in homes affected by domestic violence, substance abuse and poverty.

Criminal behavior by girls is on the increase, both locally and nationally. Of 200 girls charged with shoplifting and referred by the Juvenile Justice Authority to Girl Empowerment, only five re-offended.

Girl Empowerment outcomes substantiate that through the use of research-based programs, girls who have significant risks for substance abuse, violence or school failure can change.

But Girl Empowerment is at risk, too. Because of a loss of state funding, the Sedgwick County Commission voted last week to cut more than $53,000 of the program's funding. Future funding prospects are not very encouraging.

Unless we — as individuals who have a voice in our community, civic organizations and churches — step forward to volunteer, contribute to or advocate for prevention programs, they are endangered.

We will do what we can to address the crisis situations that occur, but it will be years before we once again reinstate prevention as a viable approach to maintaining and improving the quality of life for the people of our community.