Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Family preservation services in LA County are cut by $354 million

L.A. foster care program funding plan falls short
Anderson, Troy Anderson. San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Feb. 13, 2007.

After heralding an innovative federal funding waiver as the capstone of efforts to reform Los Angeles County's long-troubled child protective system, officials said Monday the amount of annual money that can be spent on services to help keep families together has dwindled from the $369 million originally proposed to $15 million now.

"This is the ultimate betrayal of vulnerable children and their families," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandra, Va. "Whenever you try to change the status quo in child welfare to help families, you will offend an enormously powerful group of vested interests.

"Any county as large as Los Angeles County has a foster care industrial complex, the network of agencies whose survival depends on a steady stream of foster children," Wexler said. "Anything that threatens that will prompt them to pull out all the stops to oppose it."

The dramatic change in funding comes two years after the Board of Supervisors voted to apply to the federal government for what was described as a "revolutionary" waiver that would allow the Department of Children and Family Services to use nearly $400 million of its' $1.5 billion budget on services to keep children safely with their families.

Even without the waiver, DCFS has since made marked improvements in terms of child safety, quicker adoptions and has returned thousands of children home from foster care. The number of children in foster homes has dropped from about 50,000 in the mid-1990s to 20,454 as of Dec. 31, DCFS Director Trish Ploehn said.

But child advocates worry that without the larger sum of money, those reforms could be in jeopardy.

"The victory was that there was going to be this large pot of money that could be used to offer preventative services to keep kids out of foster care," said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "I'm anxious to understand why that pot of money has dwindled significantly and where it's going to be spent instead in order to accomplish the goal of reducing the number of kids in care safely."

Susan Kerr, chief deputy director of DCFS, said the change in the figures is the result of a "misunderstanding."

Former DCFS Director David Sanders, who took a job at Casey Familiy Programs last year, wrote in a memo to the supervisors before he left that the waiver would allow DCFS to use $369 million of its budget on preventive services.

But Kerr said that figure was misinterpretted and several factors have further reduced the amount available. This includes an increase in the average amount the county pays agencies to take care of foster children from $1,748 a month in 2004-05 to $1,951 this fiscal year.

Also, DCFS' administrative costs have increased, Kerr said. A DCFS memo noted increased administrative costs are a result of 7.9 percent increases in salaries and benefits for employees this fiscal year and 9.3 percent increases each following year.

"I'm calling it a misunderstanding," Kerr said. "But we are extremely hopeful that the amount of available funding will increase as we begin to see successes from the waiver implementation. To the extent we are successful in getting more children out of placement, we'll have more dollars to reinvest."

Last week, Supervisor Michael Antonovich raised concerns about the ongoing negotiations between the county and state over the waiver, noting the state's proposed funding guidelines are more restrictive than the federal funding guidelines.

"Submission of the county plan without knowing the state's financial commitment to the project may result in the county's over-estimating service programs as part of the waiver, potentially placing the county at great financial risk," Antonovich said.

California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains committed to the federal waivers for Los Angeles and Alameda counties, even though it's going to cost the state an extra $34 million.

"To the extent we are able to keep a family together by providing counseling and substance abuse services ... that's certainly a preferrable alternative to removing a child and putting them in foster care," Palmer said. "And that's why the governor committed to this waiver and why we are continuing to provide additional resources to Los Angeles and Alameda counties to get this project up and running."

Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said the $15 million figure could be reduced even further depending on whether the federal government imposes fines on the state for not meeting guidelines for improving the child protective system.

"We are hopeful the state has contacted the federal government to get them to agree \ should not be taken away from the waiver funding," Kerr said.

Even with the reduced amount of money, Janssen said the waiver is still beneficial. After negotiations between the county and state are completed, the waiver is expected to go back before the supervisors for their approval. The plan to expand services under the waiver is expected to start July1.

"Currently, we receive money from the federal government based on the number of cases we have," Janssen said. "There is no relationship to results at all. And in fact, you get rewarded for keeping more kids in foster care. The waiver would allow the department to spend money much more flexibly than they currently are."

Wexler said he's perplexed why the county's waiver isn't working out as planned when similar ones the federal government approved last year for Florida and Michigan are working well.

"They found a way to make it work," Wexler said. "Why can't L.A.? If this waiver had gone through as originally planned, fewer children would enter foster care. That would be a great threat to foster family agencies, the private agencies that handle a lot of foster kids and get paid to hold kids in foster care. So I'm sure they have been very upset about this waiver from day one."