Paying to reform how the state cares for abused children: Feds say state missing out on big pot of money

Connecticut has made significant strides in reducing the number of abused and neglected children in foster care, but its achievement is costing it millions of dollars in federal aid.

Over the last five years, the state’s Department of Children and Families has reduced the number of children in state custody by 20 percent, officials say, bringing the number to a historic low.

This new approach has won approval from child advocates, who prefer keeping families intact whenever possible. But it has cost the state about $49 million in reimbursements during that time.

So far, DCF has not applied to the federal government for a waiver of reimbursement rules that base the size of each state’s allocation on the number of children in foster care: The more children in state custody, the larger the reimbursement.

Thirteen states have asked for the waiver, and Connecticut should, too, said George Sheldon, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

katz, sheldon

George Sheldon of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families urges Connecticut’s child welfare commissioner, Joette Katz (foreground) to apply for a waiver so the state doesn’t lose more federal money.

“Frankly, there is no [financial] incentive to get children out of care,” Sheldon said, but the federal government is hoping to change how it finances state child-welfare agencies.

Speaking at a recent meeting in Hartford, he and other national child-welfare experts urged the Connecticut administrators to apply for the waiver.

“We are committed to giving states flexibility,” he said. “I would encourage Connecticut to take advantage of this.”

Connecticut missed the July deadline to apply this round. DCF officials have been considering the waiver for months. In October, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said, “we are looking into it.” At the Aug. 10 meeting, she said “We’re hoping to apply” in the next round.

Katz’s agency has been making an effort to reduce the number of foster children by using a number of new techniques.

One initiative includes placing more abused and neglected children with their other relatives when it’s determined to be too dangerous for them to stay with their parents.

These revisions in procedure have been applauded by national and state child welfare experts. Under the waiver, “when you take fewer children you get to keep those savings. It’s cost neutral,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, and a major advocate of the waivers.

“The irony is the longer [Connecticut] waits, the less they have to gain.”

The state received $74.5 million in reimbursements last year, an $18 million reduction from the previous year.

The regulations issued by the federal child-welfare department on the waivers explain they will “allow more flexible use of Federal funds in order to test new approaches to service delivery.”

As with many government regulations, DCF would have to adopt a number of practices and meet a number of complex requirements.

DCF foster kids

Source: Connecticut Department of Children and Families

Cindy Butterfield, the agency’s budget chief, said the department has been in compliance with many of the requirements for years.

“They may seem revolutionary in other states,” she said, “but many of them we are already doing.”

Among other things, the state must show plans to reduce the time children spend in foster care, increase the number of positive outcomes or prevent re-entry into state custody.

The department must also adopt at least two policies from a long list:

  • Establish a program to prevent placement in foster care;
  • Create a bill of rights for foster children;
  • Have a health and mental health plan for foster children;
  • Extend benefits for foster children until they are 21 years old;
  • Create a better strategy to help foster youth transition out of care when they reach adulthood;
  • Implement a plan to reduce the number of group homes;
  • Increase the placement of siblings together;
  • Implement a plan to recruit quality foster families.

“Like 15 of the 20 things listed are things we are already doing,” Butterfield said. “We are looking into whether it makes sense to undertake the other things.”

Butterfield said it is her understanding that the state doesn’t get credit for the progress it’s already made, only for new initiatives.

Wexler said he believes the intent of the law is to also give credit for states who have already made the moves before this waiver and gotten it right, like Connecticut. “Katz has shown that she is committed to not needlessly removing kids. If she determines it doesn’t make sense to go after this, then I would trust her,” said Wexler.