Children services: Where’s the money go?
Finances at crux of merger
The financial solvency of court-mandated child protection and foster placement is the crux of the argument for Washington County Commissioners’ consolidation of two county departments.
The commissioners voted in October to place Washington County Children Services under the direction of the Washington County Department of Job and Family Services, citing an unsustainable model of advancing county funds after Children Services consistently ran out of funds for placement of foster children.
“At the end of the day they’re insolvent,” said Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers.
But how and why the funds run out before the end of the year is a point of contention the Children Services Board and leadership have placed on two outside factors: being underfunded by the commissioners at the beginning of the year, and high placement costs.
“For two years we’ve been forced to pay December bills with January funds because we’re not given the amount we budget for,” said Jamie Vuksic, executive director of Children Services.
He noted that despite being underfunded in placement costs, the county agency will come in approximately $16,000 under budget in personnel costs due to turnover.
For 2017, Children Services requested from the general fund $2,529,954.43, but received only $1,371,747 from county general fund appropriations.
That appropriation was the same as what was paid in 2016, preceded by $1,652,840 in 2015. Both of those requests had been fully funded. The request amount jumped as more children needed placements.
Feathers said the rest of the funds, $1,158,207.43 being more than double the 2016 payments, weren’t available without shutting down other county general fund-dependent agencies.
Alice Stewart, assistant director of Children Services, noted a spike in placement costs beginning in 2016 as the opioid epidemic left many children in the Mid-Ohio Valley without safe places to live and many traumatized or biologically affected.
She also noted the agency is left waiting from mid-October until the first of the following year to know if they’re going to be fully funded.
“This year that hearing occurred Oct. 17,” she said. “Last year we found out on Jan. 2.”
For 2018, Children Services requested $2.8 million, but the commissioners authorized only $1.4 million from county general fund appropriations.
After that allocation, Children Services ran out of the 2018 funding in August and have negotiated partial payments and deferred payments through the end of the year.
Feathers pointed out that an additional $150,000 was authorized last week by the commissioners to get the agency through the end of December.
But in January, $200,000 of this year’s bills will still have to be paid with the first funds of 2019, honoring deferment agreements with providers made this fall.
The requested budget for 2019 was $1.65 million.
“The reason we were able to reduce that is because of the anticipated $800,000 (in levy funds),” said Stewart, speaking of the Foster Care Placement Levy funds authorized by voters in May.
The finances are further complicated by differing fiscal calendars for state and federal reimbursements, which cover approximately 30 percent of placement costs, and delayed/low payments from social security and child support which don’t cover the full cost of care for children in need of more intensive services and but often disqualify other reimbursement rates.
Feathers said Wednesday that he doesn’t believe the Children Services board has mismanaged funds, but that direct oversight by DJFS and ultimately the commissioners could be a better protection of taxpayer dollars.
“We know that Licking County, Coshocton County and Green County have different ways of doing some things and maybe we could leverage levy dollars differently,” said Feathers. “The big thing to remember here is there are other ways of doing business than how we’ve been doing things for the last 20 years… The board has done a good job, but I don’t see any discussion in two years’ of minutes on what these bills are for, what do they do and can they be lowered.”
He said a civilian board, namely that of Children Services– made up of Tim Loughry, Doug Mallett, Mary Barnas, Mark Weihl and Beth Miller– is not as equipped in the bureaucratic expertise of utilizing different government funding sources.
“We want to protect the solvency of Children Services… that starts with us commissioners working with the leadership team– Flite (Freimann, director of DJFS), Jamie and Alice,” said Feathers. “And if necessary it will mean going to those care providers and negotiating lower costs–something the board didn’t even discuss until we suggested it.”
Loughry, chairman of the Children Services Board, which currently has financial oversight over the county agency, disagreed with Feathers’ assumption that all the civilian board does is blanket authorization.
“I believe that is wholly untrue,” said Loughry Wednesday. “Several times each year, when we are discussing our bills, questions are asked and lowering of costs has happened. No. 1, of course, we like to pay our bills and we do pay them on time. We can’t control the costs of those but when we look through our bills we ask about everything we’re paying from heating and air conditioning and lawn service to how we can scrutinize and scratch by with what’s needed.”
Cost of care ranges from traditional foster homes beginning at $20 per day per child to $385 per day per child for the highest intensity of one-on-one residential center care.
“We try to start a child in the lowest cost that we can, but it’s dependent on the needs of that child as they work through healing and what services they need and are court-ordered,” said Beth Palmer, eligibility specialist for Children Services.
Palmer, who determines based on judge orders if a child meets Title IV-E federal eligibility parameters, said while all locations where the county agency places children fall under federal requirements, not all children do.
“If they’re receiving death benefits or parents are paying even 13 cents of child support, that can affect how much of their care we’re reimbursed for,” she explained.
And kinship care, the most ideal placement with a family member, according to Freimann, is not eligible for reimbursement.
“But it factors into how much we get in state funding,”explained Stewart. “Those children, placed in what’s deemed the best situation, dilute the overall pool of funds for kids in care.”
The equation of how state and federal funds are distributed has multiple factors, she explained, the first being the number of children considered “in care” of Children Services.
“Then there’s the number of kids eligible for reimbursement, then if (where they’re placed) is eligible, then the number of caseworkers we have working with eligible kids, then RMS hits,” listed Stewart.
RMS hits, in brief, are a federal funding scheme based on random moments of sampling, which cite what a caseworker was doing at a randomly assigned time during their workday. Only if during that moment was the worker devoting their time to an eligible child, does that hit benefit the overall dollar amount in funding the agency receives.
Of the 70 percent of expenses not reimbursed by state and federal dollars, the county general budget supplies the rest of the cost.
“From Sept. 1 to Oct. 9, there were 141 (RMS) hits,” explained Stewart. “Of those, 84 were hits that we’re going to get back money for, only six were eligible for (federal temporary assistance to needy family dollars) from DJFS.”
That reimbursement bill to DJFS was $14,430.
Of the remaining 57 RMS hits that were ineligible for reimbursement, 31 of those popped into the system when caseworkers were investigating potential abuse and neglect cases, 26 occurred during caseworkers’ departmental meetings, filing, checking email, sick leave, vacation and lunch times.
The current federal reimbursement rate, effective Oct. 1 until Sept. 30, 2019, is 63.09 percent, though Palmer pointed out that rate changes every year.
“So for $20 a day per kid we’d get back $13, and not until the following month after their care,” she said.
Traditional foster homes, keeping children mostly local to Washington County, cost between $20 per day and $35 per day.
“So we can keep kids with more needs, for local foster homes we have offered up to $35 a day,” explained Palmer. “That’s for, say, a baby born addicted to drugs to be in a traditional foster home here, but with someone with some medical experience or extra training.”
Therapeutic homes cost between $40 and $95 per day and are the third level of care.
Group homes, the fourth level of care, cost between $100 and $250 per day.
And residential centers range in cost based on caregiver to client ratio, medical needs, psychiatric needs and other services; $180 to $385 per day, per child.
“A $350 kid we may get $220 back,” explained Palmer. “But most of our high dollar kids are not eligible for reimbursement.”
In November 2013, there were 38 children in care of Washington County Children Services, five of which were high-dollar placements.
As of Wednesday there were 85 children in care with 38 high-dollar placements.
Another factor affecting the cash advances from commissioners is the length of time it takes for federal reimbursements and training funding, state allocations, social security benefits and child support checks to come into the agency.
“There are reimbursements we get a month after we’ve fronted the money for the bills, there are others we get only quarterly and some it takes six months for us to see a payment,” explained Stewart.
So while the agency awaits reimbursement, it draws down on its carry-forward cash operating balance, and the allotted deposits from the commissioners.
“We’re on three different fiscal calendars, the county, state and federal, and those timeframes are based on their schedules,” added Palmer. “Then we can still be getting paid back child support for a kid we had in care three years ago, though it never comes close to the whole cost of that placement.”
Meanwhile the agency doesn’t set the rates for placement care, control the court’s decision to remove a child or the level of care that child needs.
In 2014, the carry-forward cash operating balance on Jan. 1 was $721,127.93.
In 2015, the carry-forward cash operating balance on Jan. 1 was $716,841.20.
Then in 2016, the first year advances for placement costs from the commissioners began, the carry-forward cash operating balance on January 1 was $440,770.36.
In 2017, the carry-forward cash operating balance on Jan. 1 was $266,238.92.
At the beginning of 2018 the cash operating balance for the agency was $32,564.57.
That was first infused with a transfer from the county commissioners totalling $116,663, but the agency only took $2,026.01 into February.
“Which runs us into difficulty when the first payroll comes around the next month,” explained Vuksic. “Nobody really likes how this unfolds, but it’s what we have to deal with when running off of reimbursements. The (Children Services) Board believes we need to have two months worth of bills on hand, approximately $650,000 to $750,000, but absolutely no lower than $350,000.”
That carry forward and general fund allocation in January wasn’t enough despite the additional $148,085.64 revenue from October and November state and federal reimbursements for adoptions, Post-Adoptive Special Services (PASS), foster parent training, placement maintenance and daycare and the final 2017 quarterly state allocation.
“PASS is for our children that have finalized adoptions but still have issues from birth or genetics,” said Palmer, likening the funding to eligibility for hospice aid for caregivers of the elderly. “A high needs child is eligible for up to $10,000 a year, to provide parents with a break … which helps with mental health respite, temporary placement costs and therapeutic placement. We can help with counseling services, residential treatment, but it can’t be used for orthodontia or food, etc.”
PASS is reimbursed at 100 percent of the cost.
“For example last month we had to pay $15,000 for residential treatment up front, and we’ll be reimbursed this month when the check comes from the state,” added Palmer. “But we don’t have control of when they cut the check.”
VOCA offsets the cost for a private violence counselor’s salary and benefits.
The state fiscal year runs from July 1 until June 30 the following year.
The January expenses totalled $295,287.20 after paying $155,936.50 in placement, mileage reimbursement, building and supply costs, $88,749.78 in payroll, $28,268.91 in insurance benefits, $2,570.64 in special checks for gas, on-call phones and other operating expenses and $1,113.10 in Medicare.
Stewart and Vuksic noted some of the personnel costs are covered by reimbursement funds and state allocations, but what has been underfunded is the increased costs of placements over the years.
In both 2017 and 2018, 55 percent of the total expenses of the agency were on salaries and benefits, 29 percent was on contract services surrounding the cost of foster placement and the remaining 16 percent covered utilities, postage, audit, repairs, supplies, equipment, travel and workers compensation.
“If we get what was requested from the commissioners in 2019 our salaries and benefits would be 38 percent of the budget assuming we’re fully funded,” explained Stewart. “And 42 percent of our budget would be for contract services (foster placement), while the final 20 percent would cover the rest (of operating expenses).”
She said currently the agency has 29 full-time staff with three vacancies and two part-time contract visitation workers that make $10 per hour without benefits. She said the starting salary for a caseworker is $27,540.
January 2018 snapshot:
• Starting balance: $32,564.57.
• County Commissioner deposit of: $116,663
• $4,666.13 in deposits from child support and social security checks,
• $2,000 in November 2017 reimbursement for adoptions,
• $4,962.50 in federal dollars passed through the state post-adoptive special services subsidy reimbursements from November,
• $1,090 in foster parent training reimbursement funds from November,
• $7,838.56 in October and November federal Victims of Crime Act grant reimbursement money,
• $31,050.95 in federal foster care maintenance and daycare reimbursement from November,
• Final 2017 state quarterly advance of $96,477.50.
• $155,936.50 in placement, mileage reimbursement, building and supply costs.
• $88,749.78 in payroll.
• $28,268.91 in insurance benefits.
• $2,570.64 in special checks for gas, on-call phones and other operating expenses.
• $1,113.10 in Medicare.
• Starting February balance: $2,026.01.
Past years’ carry-forward:
• Starting balance January 2014: $721,127.93.
• Starting balance January 2015: $716,841.20.
• Starting balance January 2016: $440,770.36.
• Starting balance January 2017: $266,238.92.
Source Washington County Children Services.