Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reforms in jeopardy without sufficient funding

Children, families lose again
Only a sliver of anticipated funds available to cut foster-kid numbers
Anderson, Troy. LA Daily News, Feb. 13, 2007, pg. N1.

After heralding an innovative plan to reform Los Angeles County's troubled child-protective system, officials said Monday that they will have just $15 million a year to help keep families together instead of the $369 million they had expected.

The dramatic change in funding comes two years after the Board of Supervisors successfully applied for a waiver of federal rules so the county Department of Children and Family Services could use nearly $400 million of its $1.5 billion budget on counseling and similar services to keep children safely with their own families.

While former DCFS Director David Sanders wrote a memo before he left the county last year, estimating that $369 million would be available, some officials now say several factors have cut into the program's funding, including an increase in fees paid to foster- care agencies and a spike in administrative costs.

"I'm calling it a misunderstanding," said Susan Kerr, chief deputy director of DCFS. "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."

But children's advocates decried the situation, saying services such as counseling, mental-health treatment and drug or alcohol rehabilitation can go a long way toward keeping families together.

"Those are some of the kinds of things at the top of the list that the advocacy community was in support of being able to put funding into to create healthier families so that children did not have to be removed from those families and put into foster care,"
said Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights.

Even without the waiver, DCFS has made strides in returning thousands of foster children to their natural families. The number of children in foster homes has dropped from about 50,000 in the mid- 1990s to about 20,500 as of Dec. 31, DCFS Director Trish Ploehn said.

But children's advocates worry that reforms could be in jeopardy without sufficient funding.

"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," Spire said. "I'm anxious to understand why that pot of money has dwindled significantly and where it's going to be spent instead."

Kerr said some of the money will be used to pay increased administrative costs for DCFS workers -- a 7.9 percent jump in salaries and benefits this fiscal year and a 9.3 percent hike next year. - THIS IS GOOD

In addition, the amount county government pays agencies to care for foster children rose from an average of $1,748 a month per child in 2004-05 to $1,951 this fiscal year.

Last week, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich raised concerns about ongoing negotiations with the state on funding of social services, noting that state regulations are more restrictive than federal guidelines.

California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains committed to the federal waivers for Los Angeles and Alameda counties.

"To the extent we are able to keep a family together by providing counseling and substance-abuse services, ... that's certainly preferable 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."

David Janssen, the county's chief administrative officer, said officials expect to have $15 million available for programs in problem prevention, but that figure could drop if the federal government penalizes the state for missing guidelines for improving the child-protective system.

"We are hopeful the state has contacted the federal government to get them to agree (the penalties) 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 July 1.

"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."


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