Thursday, April 25, 2013

Child welfare funding change proposed Coalition seeks state aid to balance equity

MANSFIELD — Ohio’s reliance on local funds to provide child welfare services ranging from adoption to child abuse investigations creates inequity that a coalition of county children services agencies hopes to solve with a $70 million infusion of state dollars.
The Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a coalition of the state’s 88 child welfare agencies, asked members of the Ohio House of Representative’s Finance Committee last week for an additional $70 million in the next two-year budget to fairly finance child welfare services. Currently, state dollars equal 10 percent of all child welfare funding — one of the lowest percentages in the country.
To receive those dollars, 62 Ohio counties would have to contribute more local funds to child welfare services, whether from a levy, county general fund revenue or sales tax, the association’s executive director Crystal Allen said. The other 26 counties are contributing to the extent their property values will allow, according to the association’s formula.
“This would not benefit all counties equally,” Allen said.
Currently, state and local funding varies dramatically between Ohio’s counties from $441 per child in Athens County to $27 per child in Putnam County. Counties with levies, including Richland and Crawford, among others received an average of $198 per child from state and local revenues compared to an average of $60 per child in the 43 counties without levies.
Federal contributions, which comprised 46 percent of the state’s child welfare funding in 2011, are matched to local dollars, but have been shrinking over the years, said Shadi Houshyar, vice president of child welfare policy at First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy group.
Under PCSAO’s proposal, each county would receive $164 per child to fund child welfare services from state and local revenues. The $164 per child figure was chosen because it is close to the current county average of state and local contributions of $169 per child in fiscal year 2011 and equates to about 80 percent of property valuation on a 1.25-mill levy, Allen said.
The amount of state assistance would vary based on county property values, whether the county has a levy and current contributions to the services, Allen said.
In Richland County, officials would reach the $164 per child benchmark with $74.28 in state revenue and $90.26 in local revenue, including the county’s pair of 1-mill levies. To reach that level, an additional $1,073,169 in state dollars and no additional local dollars would have to be collected, according to estimates from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
Because numbers are based on the $164 per child benchmark and an average levy of 1.25 mills, figures would change if legislators set different thresholds, Allen said.
The concept behind the proposed formula — using state dollars as an incentive to spur local spending — is an important goal regardless of the thresholds, Allen said. If counties do not come up with the required local funds, they could still receive a percent of state dollars for children protective services, she said.
Funding makes a difference in outcomes, Allen said. Counties without a levy or flexible federal funding took at least five-and-a-half years to match foster care children with an adoptive parent compared to three-and-a-half years for counties with one of those sources and one-and-a-half years for both, according to a recent University of Rochester review.
“We feel this is a really good solution,” Allen said. “It would help to drive federal dollars into the state.”
But Morrow County Job and Family Services Director Don Wake doubts the incentive will work in his county, where levies have failed repeatedly despite $415,000 in debt from unpaid foster care placement fees.
“There is great diversity between counties. There are counties flush with funds, and there is Morrow County, where passing a levy is monumental to say the least,” said Wake, adding that he appreciates the Public Children Services Association of Ohio’s attempt to bring more state dollars to the county level but an incentive won’t help.
Allen said legislators she’s spoken with, including members of the Ohio House of Representative’s Finance Committee, appreciate the inequity and support the proposed solution, but don’t know where to find the funds. Allen said a severance tax on oil and gas drilling could fund the program.
“It doesn’t have to come from fracking, but it seems like to me that would be a good place,” Allen said.
Ben Johnson, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesman, said department officials are aware of the proposal, but have not seen any legislation or taken a position. Gov. John Kasich’s proposed budget would maintain child welfare funding and expand other programs, including a partnership with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Twitter: @jbalmert
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