Invest in social services now to save in long run


Also appeared in the 01/01/2016 Edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Island Voices Section

By Howard Garval, President & CEO, Child & Family Service

When it comes to the old adage of “You can pay now or you can pay later,” the criminal justice system and social services sectors in Hawaii share an unfortunately common past.

But with our community working together to support and strengthen families, the future need not look so bleak.

According to The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 96 cents of every federal and state taxpayer dollar spent on addiction pays for health care, crime and social consequences — and only 2 cents goes to prevent and treat the disease.

For too long our legal system incarcerated individuals accused of drug-related crimes without violence, at high cost for jail and prison terms and with poor outcomes, with many coming out of the criminal justice more hardened and more damaged by the experience.

Twenty years ago, Hawaii‘s Legislature created our state’s drug court program to bring the legal, mental health, social service and treatment communities together to help nonviolent offenders find restoration in recovery and become productive citizens.

More recently, states such as Vermont have committed significant government funding to provide treatment rather than punishment programs for individuals arrested for the growing problem of prescription drug abuse. They address the root cause of their addictions, and the arrests do not go on their records for life.

Programs like these are about being smarter with our dollars — not necessarily adding funding, but shifting to where we make our investments. It is the kind of thinking we need more of.

Social services that strengthen our families, ranging from child-abuse prevention to care for our kupuna, can have long-term implications if we make the appropriate investments in the short term.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control estimates the lifetime costs for a single case of abuse or neglect to be $210,012.

Prevention programs have produced measurable results as well. Families at high risk for child abuse who participate in our Child & Family Service (CFS) Healthy Families program for a year or more learn nurturing parenting skills, and 99 percent have no reports of abuse.

Being penny wise but pound foolish has exacerbated the homeless situation, with states of emergency issued not only in Hawaii, but on the main-land as well, such as in Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland.

Cutbacks in social services during recession years now mean that millions of dollars are being pledged toward homelessness services over the next few months, including law enforcement diversion, housing vouchers and shelter beds. These programs, while necessary, treat the symptoms rather than the causes of issues like homelessness.

These are funds that could have been invested instead and sooner for mental health, job training and family strengthening services that help families to not only support themselves but also to create promising futures for all family members.

Our kupuna deserve the best that our community resources have to offer as well. With our growing elderly population, it is increasingly clear that more seniors are falling through the cracks without adequate support services and access to those services.

Programs like exercise and wellness classes help to provide the short-term support to ensure that seniors remain healthier and can live independently longer in their own homes, helping to reduce the costs of institutional care and medical services. These are cost-effective and care-effective solutions.

By making the right investments today, we can save money, and save lives. The dollars spent effectively in our current environment will yield dividends in the form of a healthy, thriving society.

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