Sacrificing Children

Budget cuts impact children's services, putting our most vulnerable at risk

When no one else will take care of a child or the people who are supposed to protect her are abusing her, the state steps in. Children’s Services was designed to be a temporary emergency solution for getting children out of dangerous situations, not to serve as a substitute parent.

Hamilton County has taken this responsibility seriously and built an impressive network of service providers that’s the envy of many Ohio counties. Yet the local system has always been overloaded, underfunded and expected to do more than it was designed for.

Now Ohio and the city of Cincinnati are in the process of gutting that fragile safety net in order to close budget gaps.

Ohio’s proposed budget cuts $68 million from support services, and the city budget eliminates more than $600,000 that funds such essential network partners as the YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter. As a result, Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services (JFS) has no choice but to make deep cuts.

To date, 200 jobs have been eliminated and 40 vacant positions in child services have gone unfilled. Contracts with service providers have also been cut.

‘Where do you cut?’

Despite the fact that “Hamilton County” is connected to the JFS name, the agency is primarily funded by the state and federal governments for its Children’s Services, Children’s Support Services and Workforce Development programs.

“We get very little from the (Hamilton County) general fund,” JFS Director Moira Weir says. “We have seen a 40 percent decrease in our allocation over a four-year span, but the most significant cuts hit us in ’08 and ’09 and we’re expecting the ’10/’11 budget to be really difficult. At the same time the need in this community has really increased. You’re seeing more people need our services. We have, on average, 93,000 people in Hamilton County on food stamps — that’s up about 13,000 in a year.”

What do food stamps have to do with child welfare? Tensions rise within families as a result of job losses and other economic stresses. That leads to an increase in domestic violence, increasing the need for services for the community’s most vulnerable citizens at a time when funding for these programs is being slashed.

More cost-effective prevention programs are being sacrificed because they aren’t required by law.

“What we’ve tried to do is go through and look at parts of the organization which have been very beneficial but aren’t truly tied to a true mandate,” Weir says. “What must we do, not what can we do, shall we do? What must we do?

“We know that we must do food stamp eligibility, Medicaid, all of those things. In child welfare, we must take reports of abuse and neglect. We must investigate, we must provide some services, but it doesn’t tell what level of the services. … I did everything to try to preserve the family unit.”

In practical terms, this means support staff is the first to go. “Front-line caseworkers,” as Weir describes them, now have to do things like schedule transportation for court-ordered visitation or medical appointments for each of the children they serve.

There’s no longer a staffer to help process court paperwork or other tasks required by a judge or state law when a child is removed from his home. That means caseworkers spend less time with each child.

Even though some caseworker positions haven’t been filled, child welfare jobs have been spared layoffs. To date, JFS has eliminated the Quality Assurance Department, is trying to find another agency to take over operations of the Mount Airy homeless shelter and won’t be able to give salary raises.

If budget dollars aren’t restored, however, there will be a reduction in the number of caseworkers available to help protect children, Weir says.

“I can’t imagine the governor’s job, figuring out the budget for the whole state,” she says. “We have struggled looking at our own budget. Where do you cut? Where is there left to cut before you completely dismantle what was there? …

“We’ve had foster parents who lost their jobs, so they can’t be a foster parent anymore. So then it hurts us. Our goal was trying to increase foster homes because we’re sending kids all over the state, (and) now that’s at risk. It’s only been a handful, but you have to think about that.”

‘The rules have changed’

The budget crunch raises serious concerns for Tracy Cook, executive director of ProKids. The organization was founded in 1981 to provide volunteer advocates for children in the child welfare system.

“If anyone believes government can handle this on their own, they’re sadly mistaken,” Cook says. “You cannot imagine how poorly it functions. You can sit in a room of 10 people … who are smart people who probably went into social work for all good reasons, who are now saying, ‘We have to do this because this is what the system has to offer,’ when it’s clearly not in the child’s best interest. And it will be the CASA, the one lone voice, who will say, ‘Are you crazy? I can’t imagine how that will devastate this child.’ That’s exactly what the system needs — it needs a wake-up call about what’s not working.”

A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) serves as an exclusive voice for the child “in the system” as well as a quality-control agent for services provided by the state. These specially trained volunteers work with one or two children at a time, as opposed to the 60 to 100 children a caseworker can carry, according to Weir.

The CASAs currently are reporting a significant increase in the severity of abuse being suffered by children they serve and the beginnings of sporadic problems with JFS services usually handled by administrative staff, such as transportation.

JFS has been open to receiving constructive criticism and has been working to improve care for children, but cost cuts are bringing that collaboration to an end. There’s no money for such luxuries as finding a better way to deliver services or prevention programs, as the existing flawed system has no backup plan to make sure children don’t fall through the cracks.

“One out of three people (at Jobs and Family Services) will be gone,” Cook says. “This is already an overburdened system. How will the system function with that kind of deep cut? One of our board members said to me, ‘This reminds me of my grandmother’s stories about the Depression. … She said that prior to the Depression, if a stranger came to your door, you might not even answer it. But during the Depression, if a stranger came to your door and asked for a sandwich, you made him a sandwich. The rules had changed.’ This is a time to understand the rules have changed.”

ProKids currently advocates for one out of three children in the custody of protective services, a total of approximately 460 children in 2009 — that’s up from 434 in 2007. But they can serve only children for whom they have funding, and income from donations has fallen.

These problems are also a source of opportunity, according to Cook, as hard times are forcing innovation and forging relationships where rivalries had been allowed to form. In fact, JFS is already receiving calls from community-based organizations asking how they can help.

“So many people from the community, whether it’s the system — the court, the prosecutors — or a service provider, are saying, ‘Where can we help?’ ” Weir says. “It’s been refreshing. The Mental Health Board got together with a lot of providers and held a job fair so that we could send people there. People have been really exceptional.”

‘Investing in someone else’s child’

The doors of JFS will never be allowed to close, because they’re required by law to provide services, but there will be longer lines, slower response times and a smaller staff to carry a growing number of people in need, according to Weir. Even though the federal government is providing states with more money for food stamps and other programs, local entities aren’t allowed to allocate any of those dollars for the staff needed to administrate the programs.

Cook is skeptical that the existing flawed system will be able to serve children under the strain of dramatically reduced funding. She believes that, over time, the community has come to rely on and expect JFS to work miracles that are unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

“It’s as if people relied on an ambulance and paramedics to meet all their health care needs,” she says. “That’s not the way long-term care should be provided. It’s not a solution. We’ve become dependent on a solution which is, in fact, akin to the ambulance-and-paramedic analogy to raise these kids.

“It’s not a system that cares for kids. It’s not an agency that cares for kids. It’s a committed community. Our role at ProKids is to be a portal, a doorway that the public can walk through to serve the kids most at-need and most at-risk in our community.”

Citing a number of studies that draw a direct correlation between abuse and neglect and crime, Cook says it’s in every citizen’s best interest to take an interest in these children.

“If you look at studies that show 68 to 90 percent of all male felons have a child abuse history, 96 percent of girls entering the juvenile justice system have a history of abuse, it is a core foundational issue that affects the way we function as a community,” she says. “Prevent Child Abuse America has put together national estimates. Just the economic impact of child abuse every year, they estimate it to be about a $100 billion problem nationally.

“The focus is (that) the system is temporary, it has to work as well as it can as an emergency, temporary system, but then we need this army of committed community members to come forward and say, ‘I can’t guarantee that another child in Cincinnati won’t be abused and neglected, but if we have enough people, what we can say is they won’t go through it alone, they won’t languish in the system where their needs aren’t met because a trained, community citizen will have their eye on the prize of getting them out.’ And you have quality foster care, you have potentially adoptive homes. There’s no limit to the way citizens could be involved.”

The first step, and what appears to be turning into an annual event in Cincinnati, is to get in touch with city, county and state officials to demand that they consider the long-term impact of their budget decisions. The next is to reach out to someone else’s child, the irony of which isn’t lost on Cook.

“If we don’t invest in these children, I guarantee we’ll see higher crime rates, the continued cycle of abuse and neglect,” she says. “This is not just an investment in these children … it’s an investment in what kind of community we’re going to leave our children. You can think, ‘I have to keep my nose to the grindstone and focus only on my family,’ but the reality is someone (could say) to you today, ‘I have something that you could do today that would cause your child to be safer in our society, to live in a society that’s more likely to be thriving, and the bizarre thing is it’s investing in someone else’s child.’

“If you are thinking about what you want to leave your children, the real legacy you want to leave them is a community that works better than the one that you found. That’s the return on the investment I’m talking about.”

[Read Joe Wessels' related column, "Cutting the Safety Net," here.]

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