In a key budget hearing Monday, Georgia’s child welfare agency described its plans to increase foster care payments and first steps toward implementing a recently passed federal law that will impact child welfare systems across the country.
Tom Rawlings, acting director of the Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS), told the state’s House Appropriations Human Resources Subcommittee that newly-elected Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) recently-released budget includes a nearly $10 million increase in foster care payments. The number of youth in state foster care skyrocketed from 7,761 in 2012 to 14,942 in 2018.
Rawlings noted that “while our numbers have been reduced since last July, after a significant … spike,” more money is needed because the legislature recently approved a hike in the foster care per diem rate. “We will need to adjust payments out to meet those costs,” Rawlings said.
DFCS is also requesting $504,000 to help private child welfare providers adjust to the new landscape created by the Family First Prevention Services Act, a law that opens up funding to prevent children from entering foster care while limiting federal funds for group homes and other so-called “congregate care” facilities.
Family First cuts off federal funds for congregate care placements at two weeks, unless a court agrees to extend and the placement meets the newly defined criteria of a Qualified Residential Treatment Program (QRTP). This new designation requires accreditation, a therapeutic model involving clinical staff, and plans to help the child return to his family.
“We have group homes that have to change their business models,” Rawlings said. “Some will try to become a QRTP.”
States have until October of 2019 to either implement the law, or seek up to a two-year delay. Any state taking a delay can seek reimbursement for congregate care under the existing federal rules, but cannot draw down money for the new front-end services.
DFCS spokesman Walter Jones confirmed that the state is working toward implementing the act in the fall of 2020. He said one step before implementation is an update of the computer system for tracking DFCS-involved children and families.
The Department of Human Services, the parent agency of DFCS, also requested $153,745 to expand child care capacity in anticipation of greater demand under Family First.
Rawlings also discussed the agency’s $808,000 request to help “make sure we are helping kin and fictive kin complete the approval process to become foster parents.” DFCS has prioritized the use of relatives and “fictive kin” – adults not related to, but close with a child – to care for children who cannot stay at home.
The number of youths placed with relatives is up from 19 percent to “almost a third” in recent years, Rawlings told the committee.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D) asked Rawlings about the disparity in payments made to foster parents and unlicensed relative caregivers, which she understood to be about $10 per day. Oliver recently told The Imprint that she intended to seek a raise for relatives.
Cliff O’Connor, chief financial officer for DFCS, told Oliver that the gap had narrowed to about $3 during recent foster care payment adjustments. Oliver said she would follow up for updated rate figures, but also asked what the cost would be to raise the rate for unlicensed relatives by $1.
Rawlings said based on the current total of 7,300 unlicensed relatives, it would be “about $2.6 million.”