Monday, August 20, 2012

Child welfare in Wisconsin: State wants to rob Milwaukee to aid other counties

HHS should reject Wisconsin’s 
child welfare waiver proposal

            There is nothing unusual about a rivalry for resources between a big city and the rest of the state.  Think New York City vs. Upstate, Chicago vs. Downstate, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh vs. rest-of-state etc.

            But I’ve rarely seen anything as blatant as what the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families proposes to do to Milwaukee.  In shocking, explicit detail, its proposal for a child welfare funding waiver describes how the state would confiscate savings made by improving Milwaukee child welfare and use that money in every Wisconsin county – except Milwaukee.

            Wisconsin is one of 13 states that have submitted formal proposals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for waivers from federal child welfare funding rules, though only eight of the proposals currently are available on the HHS website.   Under the waivers, federal money that normally can be spent only on foster care can be spent on better alternatives as well.  Since the better alternatives also cost less, reducing foster care generates savings.  Under a waiver, the state can keep the savings, as long as the money is reinvested in child welfare.

            In most states, child welfare is run directly by the state.  In about a dozen states, individual counties run child welfare.  Wisconsin is among those dozen, but it’s a curious hybrid: At least partly as a consequence of a lawsuit by the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights,” the state Department of Children and Families runs child welfare in Milwaukee directly, through a division known as the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW). 

            The Wisconsin proposal is a slapdash, slipshod effort. (Contrast it to, for example, the much bolder, far-reaching proposals from Arkansas, Utah and Washington State.) Wisconsin proposes to make extremely limited use of waiver funds to finance only one innovative service: help to families after they have been reunified to prevent the children from reentering foster care.  And the services they propose to provide appear to be largely “soft” services, like counseling, instead of the concrete help families need most.

Even if everything goes the way the state wants, by the end of the  waiver period, only $7.1 million per year of what now is spent on foster care would be shifted to better alternatives.  That’s less than ten percent – and it would take five years even to achieve that.

            But here’s where Wisconsin’s plan goes from merely pedantic, mediocre and unambitious to appalling: Of that $7.1 million, $1.2 million, or 17 percent, doesn’t come from the waiver at all – it comes from money that is, in effect, stolen from the vulnerable children of Milwaukee County to be redistributed to the rest of the state.

DCF is arguing that in Milwaukee County they’ve already done such a great job putting plans in place, that they’re sure they will reduce reentries even without the waiver.  Since the waiver lets them keep money saved through this reduction, DCF plans to take these savings and divert the money to Wisconsin’s other 71 counties, instead of spending it on bolstering services in Milwaukee.

Or, as the waiver proposal itself puts it, on page 13:

To the extent that [the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare] BMCW experiences success in reducing its re-entry rate, the IV-E demonstration project waiver will build on the successful experience in BMCW to replicate and expand post-reunification support to the 71 non-Milwaukee counties.  Specifically, federal IV-E and state matching funds that are not utilized for [foster care] maintenance costs in Milwaukee due to lowered out-of-home care caseloads will be reallocated to non-Milwaukee counties to fund the administrative and service costs of twelve months of post-reunification support.  [Emphasis added.]

And check out pages 21 and 22, where the state seems almost gleeful as it explains in detail how Milwaukee savings will be siphoned off to the rest of the state.

As far as I know, the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR), has been silent about Wisconsin’s waiver proposal – I don’t know if they’ve even read it.  Will they actually stand silent as the state of Wisconsin proposes to siphon child welfare funds away from the county where they have a consent decree?  Unfortunately the answer may be yes.  These are funds to keep children out of foster care, as opposed to funds to “improve” foster care.  And, of course CR has made clear over and over that it is indifferent, at best, and hostile, at worst, to keeping kids out of the system.

CR may well remain silent even though CR has a special responsibility to speak up.  It was CR’s lawsuit that set in motion the chain of events that led to the state taking over child welfare in Milwaukee.  Were county government still responsible for child welfare it would have been a lot harder for the state to pull a stunt like this.

            Under federal law, HHS can award up to ten waivers per year for the next three years. There are 13 proposals for this first round of waivers. The Wisconsin proposal should be sent immediately to the scrap heap.  The state should be informed that the federal government will not be an accomplice to siphoning funds from one part of a state to another.

Next week NCCPR will issue a Report Card on all eight publicly-available waiver proposals.