Sacred cows in D.C.'s child services budget
Ideally, a budget crisis would bring out the best in our public officials — a search for creative solutions and a willingness to take on even the most sacred cows to spare those who will suffer most as belts tighten and axes fall.
Not in the District, where, as part of a battle over closing a gap in the current budget, public officials pitted one of the groups most in need, impoverished children at risk of being placed in foster care, against another, children already in foster care. Meanwhile, alternative cuts that might advance the public good even as they save money were never even discussed.
First came Roque Gerald, who runs the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). He proposed cutting in half a program that provides basic help to grandparents and other relatives who have custody of children. These are children who have not come to the attention of the CFSA — yet. The idea is that with a little basic help, it can stay that way. The grandparents won’t be forced to surrender the children because they can’t afford to care for them and won’t be plunged into poverty so severe that the CFSA would confuse it with “neglect” and take the children away.
Gerald also proposed deep cuts in the Healthy Families Thriving Communities Collaboratives, which provide help to families that otherwise might lose their children to foster care. The collaboratives are a key component of the District’s decades-long effort to turn around its child welfare system.
Then came D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who amended Gerald’s proposal to restore some, but not all, of these cuts. But he did it in part by making deeper cuts to programs to serve children already in foster care.
That upset Gerald. In a letter to the D.C. Council, Gerald wrote that “the widespread belief that grandparent subsidies prevent entry into the child welfare system does not hold up under scrutiny. As you know, the mandate of the child welfare system is to protect and serve children who have been maltreated, and this is simply not the situation of the overwhelming majority of children being raised by their grandparents.”
If torturing logic were a war crime, that statement would get Gerald hauled before an international tribunal.
Every prevention program serves children who have not been maltreated. Maltreatment is what the prevention programs are created to prevent. That’s why they’re called prevention programs. Gerald’s logic is like saying a rent subsidy program doesn’t prevent homelessness because all of the people getting the subsidies are living in apartments.
Of course not every child whose grandparents lost their help would wind up in foster care — most grandparents will move heaven and earth to avoid that. But given how much more foster care costs, by one estimate five times more than the typical grandparent subsidy, it wouldn’t take all that many to use up all the “savings” from this cut.
But Gerald is right to complain that Wells’s alternative deepens cuts for programs to help foster children.
All of these cuts could be restored if D.C. stopped relying so heavily on both the worst form of substitute and the most expensive: group homes and institutions. The independent court monitor overseeing the District’s child welfare consent decree has found that “a substantial and unacceptably high” number of children are placed in such facilities, in violation of the decree.
It’s not just the CFSA that overuses this form of care.
In 2009, University Legal Services reported that, at any given time, various D.C. government agencies warehouse proportionately more children in so-called “residential treatment centers” than any state except South Dakota. ULS notes that the institutions “tend to be far from the District, expensive, abusive, and most importantly, generally ineffective” — and they cost $250 per day per child.
The waste doesn’t stop there. The group suing the CFSA, an organization that calls itself Children’s Rights, crusades all over the country for fat pay raises for the foster parents who take in poor people’s children. It argues that foster parents should be reimbursed not only for the basics but also for every toy, game, movie ticket and amusement park ride they buy for a foster child.
Only two places in America already lavish this much money on foster parents — and one of them is the District. In fact, the District pays foster parents significantly more than they need to provide all of this.
Yet somehow, Tommy Wells and Roque Gerald can’t think of anything better to do than to pit one group of poor children against another to fight over the leftovers — after the residential treatment centers, the group homes and the middle-class foster parents get more than they need.
The writer is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
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