Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Financing foster care and family preservation: The waiver that saved Florida – again!

One of the canards used by the foster care-industrial complex to scare people away from real reform of how the federal government pays for child welfare is the claim that an "entitlement" is harder for Congress to cut than a flat grant. Therefore, groups like the Child Welfare League of America say, we have to keep the current, idiotic entitlement that pays states for every eligible child they throw into foster care.

Of course, this creates an absurd incentive to use foster care instead of better alternatives – but if you're a trade association that represents a lot of great big private agencies that need a steady supply of foster children to stay in business, you're not going to have a problem with that.

In fact, neither entitlements nor flat grants are written into the Constitution. Neither is easier or harder to change than the other. Indeed, CWLA itself is willing to see the entitlement for foster care cut in exchange for making every foster care case eligible for federal aid – so apparently cutting an entitlement isn't really so hard after all. (For details on all this see our briefing paper on child welfare finance.)

But now it turns out that not only are flat grants no easier to reduce; done right, they actually can save a child welfare system from devastating budget cuts. It's happening in Florida – for the second year in a row.

As I've noted often on this Blog, Florida is the only state that accepted a statewide waiver from federal funding rules – they traded in their "entitlement" to unlimited foster care money for every eligible child they threw into the system for a flat grant – and the flexibility to use the money for better alternatives, instead of just foster care.

The benefits for children have been huge: significantly fewer torn from everyone they know and love, and, most important, improvements in child safety, as documented by independent outside evaluations.

But there's also been a big financial gain. For starters, unlike the entitlement, which can be cut at any time, the waiver guaranteed Florida a specific level of federal aid for five years. But there's a string attached: Florida can't cut its state spending on child welfare below where it was when the waiver first was approved, in 2006. Cut below that level and the state loses all its federal money.

The result: a floor on state spending below which Florida simply won't go. As this Palm Beach Post editorial makes clear, for the second year in a row, the waiver will save Florida from devastating budget cuts in child welfare. The waiver won't prevent all budget cuts in children's services; but it significantly reduces the harm. No other state child welfare system in America has that kind of leverage.

It's too bad, that say, Michigan doesn't have a waiver like that, so the state can't impose slash-and-burn budget cuts on prevention and family preservation. Oh, wait – Michigan did have such a waiver. The state Department of Human Services even put out a press release touting it. Then, at the last minute, Michigan chickened out.

And this time, it wasn't the fault of Ismael Ahmed and his pals. The decision was made during the administration of his predecessor, Marianne Udow. Exactly who made the decision remains a mystery, in part because no reporter in Michigan has pressed DHS to name this individual so he or she can be held accountable. But, at a minimum, Udow allowed it to happen.

But the biggest lesson isn't the one that needs to be learned by Michigan, it's the one that needs to be learned by Congress: Congress needs to stand up to CWLA and the rest of the network of vested interests in child welfare - the foster care-industrial complex - and resist the kind of wimpy, non-reform reforms that the foster care-industrial complex wants. Instead, at a minimum, Congress should require the Department of Health and Human Services to make Florida-style waivers available to any state that wants it. Better yet, the Florida approach should be mandatory for every state.