More than 100 representatives from various county and local child and family services gathered at the Children’s Museum on Wednesday to discuss what to do if the governor’s state budget passes.  

With the potential of severe cuts to support services that will affect thousands of children locally and their families, officials from ChildWatch of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit coalition of child advocates, called the meeting to answer questions and get ideas.

More than one-sixth of people in Allegheny County are served by taxpayer dollars, said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County Department of Human Services, adding the importance of speaking up now and being proactive.

A $40 million deficit in the state budget will include many cuts, Cherna said, including higher education; public welfare; human services, including jail re-entry programs; programs for people with physical disabilities; family support centers; and children and youth services.

“These cuts will affect people who can’t afford it. So if you take away these services, they really can’t afford it,” Cherna said.

Cherna emphasized the important of jail re-entry, saying that for every $1 that is spent on programs, $6 is saved later. Small cuts were predicted to mental health services and employment training, but that family support centers, which Cherna called “a very critical piece,” are predicted to lose more.

“When services get cut, it’s always prevention that gets hit. We help in families before they need formal assistance,” he said. “The pendulum has swung, but it’s been a long time since it’s swung in the direction of the needy and people who require help.”

Federal budget cuts also threaten resources, Cherna said, including safety net items that include support services and after-school programs; the AmeriCorps program; significant reductions to funds for Section 8 housing, Headstart and LIHEAP programs.

As it stands, 2,050 low-income children receive subsidies for daycare and private care and 756 are on the waiting list, said Maggie Jensen, CEO of YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. YWCA has the county contract to administer child care subsidies.

While the budget will cut $13 million from subsidies across the state, Jensen estimated that 3,000 more kids will be added to the list in Allegheny County. The result, Jensen said, will be more children watching children, and more “latchkey” kids.

“Things are bad as they are proposed now, but I think they can get worse,” she said. “We are engaging in a moral test of our government. We will see in early May what is valued by our legislature.”

Chris Smith, Executive Director of Child Watch of Pittsburgh, acknowledged that everyone has to give up a little bit as a way to minimize the effects as much as possible while continuing to voice concern to the governor.

“We don’t want to fight each other for scraps. The day has come where we say this isn’t acceptable.”

Short-and long-term ideas were discussed by panelists and participants, including engaging the governor in a dialogue to find other means of revenue.

Participants said asking the state to consider “flexible funds” so that agencies and counties can do more with money they have may be a good approach. They also discussed battling the perception that money isn’t “taken,” but rather funds are used well with little waste. The idea to possibly combine children and family services in the future also came up.

For now, panelists stressed the need to call, write and fax state representatives, both Democrats and Republicans. Holding a rally Downtown to show solidarity was also discussed.

Smith said that this will not be the last of these meetings between advocates.

“The voices for children are often not heard, and we have to find a way for our voices to be heard,” Smith said. “It’s a local, state and national issue. We need to put the voice of a child into the equation.”