JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Northeast Florida Department of Children and Families serves 2.4 million people in 20 counties. Many of them are suffering from the effects of a down economy, which one local expert believes is having a big effect on local youth.
"The impact on children is profound," says Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, Chief of the Division of Community Pediatrics at The University of Florida.
Goldhagen has worked with Northeast Florida families for more than two decades and says the struggles parents face - with money, housing and more - are hurting our kids and impacting their state of mind more than most people realize.
"All of those chronic traumatic stresses find themselves focused particularly on children."
Action News and Dr. Goldhagen were given an exclusive early look at the Northeast Florida Department of Children and Families annual review that is set to be released next week.
In it, we found the department gave more than 650,000 people economic assistance last year, which is up four percent from the previous year, and 113 percent over the last five years.
Goldhagen says local non-profits are helping, but resources are tight.
"As a community we have responded, but it's been difficult and we're seeing the impact of this demand."
The impact is hitting Northeast Florida youth especially hard. The DCF report claims one in eight Jacksonville high school students has attempted suicide, and in Duval County nearly one in every three children is on food stamps, which Goldhagen says has doubled in recent years.
"The health and well-being of children in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida is among the worst in the developed world."
But the local situation is looking up. Goldhagen credits DCF for making great strides in a difficult times. The report outlines how the department has reduced their budget by five percent over the past year, while adding staff and reducing the average caseload by 30 percent. That allows staff to focus more on child safety needs and mental health issues for all ages.
It's a step in the right direction, Goldhagen believes, to help keep economic stresses from impacting the mental health of area kids long-term.
"This is a community that has to respond not tomorrow for kids, but today."
Goldhagen says the area is working with a six-year, $9 million federal grant to help with mental health issues locally, and the community has added another $3 million. While it's too early to see the effects of those efforts in the DCF report, he says access to at-risk youth is improving and the results look promising.
The Florida Department of Children & Families Northeast Region Year in Review report can be read in full here.