Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: Lame excuses for trying to divert funds from Milwaukee

Last month on this blog, I reported that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) is trying to misuse a federal waiver process to siphon child welfare funds from Milwaukee to the rest of the state.

Last week, the news website Urban Milwaukee followed up and reported on DCF’s excuse.  Fredi-Ellen Bove, a DCF division administrator, first tried to claim that “any savings realized by Milwaukee [through reducing foster care] would have reverted back to the federal government.”

That’s grossly misleading.  Savings revert to the federal government under the current system, in which states are reimbursed for every eligible child they place in foster care.  But a key advantage of a waiver is that you get to keep the savings from reducing needless foster care, as long as the funds are reinvested in child welfare.

Urban Milwaukee wasn’t suckered.  The website reports that when she is pressed on the matter …

Bove concedes the state made a choice to spend the money in a different way. “We reached the conclusion we don’t need waiver dollars to meet the needs in Milwaukee.” Bove says Milwaukee has a stronger support system than other counties, with 12 months of “post-reunification” care by counselors after a child’s case is over, while other counties lack this.

But this, too, is an evasion.  For starters, it was DCF’s own stupid decision to seek only a narrow waiver focused exclusively on post-reunification services. (The Wisconsin proposal and proposals from other states are available here.)  Second, the existence of this one program has not magically wiped out all of Milwaukee’s child welfare problems.

Indeed, it strains credulity to think that Milwaukee, where children are torn from their families at a rate significantly higher than many other cities and where the child poverty rate is more than 34 percent, really needs the money less than, say, Ozaukee County, where the child poverty rate is six percent.

But if Wisconsin DCF really believes the issue is spending waiver money most efficiently, that’s all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to turn down Wisconsin’s waiver proposal entirely.

Thirteen states have applied for ten waivers.  Massachusetts, for example, is proposing to spend $20 million per year on its five-year waiver initiative.  Wisconsin, in contrast, proposes to use only $7.1 million in funds for its waiver, and the total doesn’t get that high until the fifth year.

Since the law only allows ten waivers per year for three years, surely the federal government owes it to American taxpayers to use those waivers to provide the most real benefit to the greatest number of children.  So it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money to waste a waiver on Wisconsin’s current proposal.

Fortunately, the federal government can issue ten more waivers in 2013 and another ten in 2014.  Wisconsin should go back to the drawing board and return with a comprehensive proposal to serve all children who otherwise might be placed in foster care or remain trapped there.

If Wisconsin DCF needs some help, the current proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State are good models.  You can read about them in NCCPR’s Report Card on all of the publicly-available waiver proposals, on our website here.