With County Commissioners demanding that all county agency's balance their budgets to help fix a $56 million deficit, the Department of Children and Family Services has a large task ahead. This week (5/6), DCFS officials held special meetings to determine how to cut down on expenses without having to cut back on services. As 90.3 WCPN's Renita Jablonski reports, the department's need to re-evaluate the way it operates may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Renita Jablonski: Less than two months after being officially appointed as Director of Cuyahoga County's Department of Children and Family Services, Jim McCafferty finds himself having to bring the agency out of a $19 million hole. Along with some obvious and expected moves, like a hiring freeze and moratoriums on staff travel, McCafferty is taking a creative approach to try and save money while at the same time improving the way the agency operates.
Jim McCafferty: This gives us a chance to really go back and look at our kids and say, "does the safety issue that brought the child in our system still exist?" Yes or no? If it's yes, end of discussion, let's talk about what we need to do to stop that or whether we should do something else. But if it doesn't, then let's talk about why this child's not home.
RJ: There are 6,000 children in county custody. Starting Monday, and continuing through the month of June, McCafferty, his department heads, and a team of case review staff will begin applying these questions as they review every single child who's in a paid placement - starting with those in specialized foster care.
JM: We chose specialized foster care to start because for a while we've been looking at kids in residential treatment about why can't they step down quicker and we found that there's really nowhere for them to go so we thought it would be counterproductive to review kids, say yeah, they can leave residential treatment but then not have a place to go. So by starting in specialized foster care will hopefully create bed space available for the kids in the deep run services who are ready to step down, to step down.
RJ: McCafferty says a big part of this effort will be an attempt to bring children that are in residential placements outside of the county back into the community. Adam Jacobs is CEO of Bellefaire Jewish Children's Bureau, a contracted service provider for the county that provides a wide range of counseling and residential services for abused and neglected children throughout the state. Jacobs says McCafferty's idea makes sense.
Adam Jacobs: If there's a young person being placed in Pennsylvania and the county's paying x-number of dollars for that young person to be placed there. If we have a facility for a young person to stay here and it's going to cost the county a tad less than it works for everybody. It works for the child, it works for the county, and it works for us.
RJ: McCafferty's plans will require major cooperation not only from service providers like Bellefaire, who will not receive increased per diems for children despite rising costs, but also from other county agency's. For instance, another initiative is to team up more with the juvenile court system. This year the county will break ground to build a $50 million youth intervention center.
JM: Let us look at the money we're spending, maybe we can get with you on the assessment center, we could have our kids go there. The unruly deliquent kids, whether they're in our system or the juvenile court system, they have a social worker, the have a P.O., they still need a lot of the same services so let's jointly go out and acquire those services.
RJ: Still, in order to make cost-cutting measures like these work without hiring new staff, DCFS workers will feel the weight. In recent years, the department has greatly reduced its turnover rate of social workers, down now to only about 3%. Guillermo Tores was a social worker who now serves as a public information officer.
Guillermo Tores: Case load will increase, responsibility per case load will increase even more, and at times it might be a little more stressful but I think if you become proficient as a worker and do your work efficiently, and rely on your co-workers to help you when needed, that it's going to balance things out a little more.
RJ: The agency has an agreement with the county that if case load numbers become overwhelming, the hiring freeze will be lifted to hire more social workers. McCafferty says it's hard to tell whether or not all of these measures will be enough to fully balance the budget but he says it's a step in the right direction.
JM: These are things we know we've needed to do, things we've felt we should be doing. The other thing is, there will be a systematic, thorough review of every one of our non-permanent custody children in paid placement and that's something that's great. I mean, in a two month period, that's going to be of utmost value to us.
RJ: Adam Jacobs of Bellefaire says he hopes the county budget crisis also opens up the public's eye to the bigger picture - a need to focus resources and act as advocates for children who have no where else to turn, emphasizing the fact that the lack of money is not something that happened overnight.
AJ: So we've got to look at, I think stuff like when the human service levy comes out, we got to look at a replacement levy. Just going out with the same old levy for the same amount of dollars it's just not going to work, not when the state has shut down the state hospitals. There are these kids, these are the ones that have been abused for many years, why would we want to abuse them again by cutting services to them?
RJ: Jacobs says unless lawmakers and citizens consider revenue enhancements, the situation will only get worse. So far there are no plans to cut foster care or adoption subsidies. In fact, maintaining adoption subsidies at a level that matches foster care payments is now a fixed cost. McCafferty and others in the Child Protective Services arena dream of the day the state would pick up that expense, but with Ohio now facing a $1.2 billion deficit, it's just that, a dream. The County's budget committee will meet again this summer at which the Department of Children and Family Services will find out how they're doing. If there isn't a significant enough change, it could mean cutting into services and reducing per diem payments to local service providers. In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3 WCPN News.