More spent on foster care than programs to reunite parents, kids

It’s a dilemma agency officials say needs to be addressed, but there are no easy answers.

In 2008, Children Services spent $9 million housing children in their custody and $2.6 million on services for parents and families. As of last year, the housing costs have grown to just over $10 million, and service contract costs dropped to just over $1 million. Foster care costs alone have jumped from $3.5 million six years ago to $5.2 million last year.

That’s a problem, according to temporary Assistant Director Bill Morrison.

“How do we shift resources that have necessarily been pushed to absorb ever-increasing placement costs back toward services to families,” Morrison said at a recent agency overhaul brainstorming meeting. “So we have the kind of services available, because if you don’t, you just have ever increasing placement costs… I think, about a month’s worth of placements is a year’s worth of services.”

Children Services Executive Director Jerome Kearns said the drop in dollars for services is a little bit deceiving, because they have made a concerted effort to charge Medicaid for as many services as possible. But it is still a big issue and part of the reason he launched a major agency overhaul on Jan. 16. The executive team is about to reach the midpoint of the four-month-long process. Kearns’ team has been meeting with agency staff and community members to find solutions.

To date, there are about 450 children in the agency’s custody in foster homes, group homes or residential treatment centers. Another 450 to 500 are under the care of a relative other than their parents. There are only about 140 licensed foster homes in the county. Kearns has said the number of children in custody is not the main issue; the length of time children are away from home is.

At a meeting with lawyers and child advocates in February, several “barriers” to successful family reunification were identified. Clogged court dockets and continuances, waiting lists for substance abuse — mainly heroin — treatment and reunification case plans that lack parental buy-in or, in some instances, understanding.

Adolfo Olivas, who is a guardian ad litem for children, said he is not accusing the county of creating cookie-cutter type case plans, but parental buy-in and participation in planning is crucial.

“The measurement of a case plan’s success needs to be the modification of the behaviors not the completion of the service,” he said. “If I go to the zoo every day of the week for a year, I am not going to be an animal. If I go to anger management every day for a month, it’s not necessarily going to make me a better parent. We have to be able to measure behaviors, not just tick off a list.”

One program, the Family Preservation Program — that was a victim of budget cuts — has been touted by many as a very beneficial tool in reunification efforts. It went away two or three years ago.

Social worker Joe Beumer worked in the Family Preservation Program for three years. He said he spent eight hours a week with each family in his care, teaching the parents things many people take for granted, such as budgeting, cooking and how to interact with children.

“There is so much more that the kids need that they are not getting. I can assess the situation in the home and say the kids are safe, and that their needs are met — shelter, education, medical needs, they have water and food in the home and things like that,” he said. “But do they have consistency, do they have routines, do they have rules in the home, do they have expectations, are the parents building their self esteem through positive reinforcement or is it all negative? Those are the types of things that I did with the families in the Family Preservation Program. Unfortunately, that is gone, which kind of leaves a hole in the system.”

Tracy Washington, a guardian ad litem for children, said she wishes the preservation program could be reinstated but the current developmental living skills program is also helpful. The in-home, hands-on approach is the best way to effect change, she said.

“In terms of getting children reunified out of foster care and returned home, giving the family the tools that they need to be a successful family,” she said “In-home programs like that are the types of things I would encourage you to look to as you reorganize and consider how to use resources in the future.”

Kearns said they plan to get data on the Family Preservation Program to see if in fact it was successful. He said there are any number of programs in his business where one group of people may find something valuable and another group will heartily disagree. He was not the director at the time the program was in place so he couldn’t speak first-hand on its value.

As they go through the revamping exercise, Kearns said they are looking at everything people have talked about during the “hard talk” community meetings. But any decisions made, he said, have to be backed up by hard facts.

“We will begin using data to make our decisions. We won’t be making decisions because it feels right or because it seems like it should feel right,” he said. “We will have data.”

As a result of the community meetings, especially the faith-based group, Kearns said new avenues have opened up for dealing with issues, such as the length of time it takes to reunify families. Last month, Kearns and his executive team met with 10 members of churches and other faith-based organizations to discuss ways the agency and the county’s congregations can cooperate to help children and families.

The church leaders and others were very enthusiastic about helping to find foster families and offering mentoring services, which could conceivably be akin to the former preservation program. Kearns said he plans to poll his staff this week about how the congregations could be of service immediately.

“We want to get through this entire process and put this altogether as a package so we have a very purposeful reorganization as we move forward,” Kearns said. “But there are just some things we feel can’t wait, because the momentum has been built in particular with that group.”

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