Highlands rallying community to save Tarentum family center | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

Highlands rallying community to save Tarentum family center

Brian C. Rittmeyer
Brian C. Rittmeyer | Tribune-Review
The Highlands Family Center in Tarentum on Friday, May 17, 2019.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit would be forced to close most of its centers serving vulnerable Allegheny County families because of a more than $1 million reduction in state funding.

The Highlands School District has put out a “call to action” for support for the center in Tarentum, and the county’s state Senate delegation on Friday called for Gov. Tom Wolf to intervene.

“These centers are critical for the families and children of the Highlands School District,” Highlands Superintendent Monique Mawhinney said. “They provide families with various types of support that they depend on day in and day out. Elimination of these centers will have a significant impact on the lives of many families in the Highlands communities.”

Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines said she has serious concerns about the funding cuts that could effect the Lincoln Park Family Center. It’s in the Lincoln Park Community Center, which also offers a Head Start program, a library, food bank and regular clothing drives.

“Valuable services for our community could be lost and/or reduced if the funding model is adjusted,” she said. “The Lincoln Park Family Center’s location is ideal and allows one-stop shopping for families.”

The AIU operates 10 family centers. In addition to Tarentum and Penn Hills, they are located in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, Clairton, Duquesne, Homestead, McKeesport, McKees Rocks, Wilkinsburg and Wilmerding.

Eight of them are at risk of being lost, said Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

The AIU says it has been operating the family centers for 27 years. It will serve more than 1,000 families and 1,900 children at them this year alone.

Their programs and services address childhood development, educational services, transportation needs, food security and medical care.

“In many impoverished communities, the family center is the sole point of access to resources and supports,” the AIU said in a letter seeking help from state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. “Our centers are places where families can feel safe and access basic needs — the very things that many of us take for granted.”

Half of the unit’s funding for the centers comes from the Office of Child Development and Early Learning at the state Department of Human Services.

According to the AIU, funding for family centers has been limited in each county to two applicants and a maximum of $561,200.

“These unprecedented limitations mean that the AIU, if selected as a family center operator, would lose at least $1.3 million in funding,” the AIU said in its letter to Costa.

The AIU says it “will be forced to close multiple family centers while slashing staff and services supporting families at the remaining sites — all within the next two months.”

The Department of Human Services declined to offer comment or answer any questions, spokeswoman Erin James said.

“At this time, no procurement decisions have been made and it would be premature for us to comment,” she said.

AIU spokeswoman Sarah McCluan referred questions to the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

Cherna said his department has not gotten an explanation for the funding cut.

“We were completely blindsided by this,” he said. “This makes no sense.”

Cherna said they are urging people to write to the state Department of Human Services and Wolf’s office detailing what the centers mean to them, how their loss would affect them and asking that the request for applications be reconsidered.

“There’s no need to do this, there’s no urgency. There’s nothing that’s forcing their hand,” he said. “There’s no harm in saying, ‘pull it back for now’ and take a fresh look.”

The AIU is asking lawmakers to have the Department of Human Services continue its current provider contracts or advocate for appropriations in the 2019-20 state budget to maintain funding for the centers.

A representative of Wolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Allegheny County’s state Senate delegation — Costa, Jim Brewster, Wayne Fontana, Pam Iovino and Lindsey Williams — signed a letter to Wolf on Friday urging the governor to instruct the Department of Human Services and the Office of Child Development and Early Learning to rescind the request for proposals.

The request “was issued without discussion with local elected officials, is not in the best interest of the 600 families that currently rely on the services of the centers and is ill-conceived,” the letter states.

Each center is intentionally located in a high-poverty community to provide services that improve child outcomes and help families provide for themselves, the senators say.

“It makes no sense to limit these programs,” they said. “If anything, we should be investing more to reach the families in-need for which we currently lack the resources.”

Amy Faltot of Fawn signed a petition supporting the centers. She has not used the services offered at the Highlands center in Tarentum, but is familiar with it and knows people who work there.

“If we have something in our community that is actually empowering people to be better people and to take care of themselves and give their children good examples, it’s something that’s worth keeping,” she said. “It’s not just a free handout. They’re doing something to empower those parents to be the best parents they can be in all aspects of their lives.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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