“Releasing the funds is putting a Band-Aid on a problem that’s not quite sticking on both sides. It’s a very tentative, very temporary fix,” said Deborah Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Unless the budget process progresses more smoothly next year, child welfare providers are settling in for a series of long-term impacts: ongoing cash flow problems, the defunding of prevention services and a demoralized field.
Child welfare advocates see these problems causing sustained and long-felt negative impacts on children.
Cash Flow Woes
The budget impasse this year has left many child welfare organizations with depleted reserves and endowment funds, weakening the field overall and opening it up to future fiscal crises.
“We just have no resiliency left in our field right now,” said Bernadette Bianchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family Services, a statewide association of child welfare service providers.
The state allocated a total of $1.7 billion for children, youth, and family services in the 2015-2016 budget, all of which was withheld between July and the blue-line veto in December.
When state payments to counties stopped at the end of the state fiscal year in June, many agencies first made as many cuts as they could to parts of their organizations, especially staff. In many cases, providers cut workers to part-time, furloughed workers, or cut any other expenses they could in order to maintain programs. They also dipped into operating reserves and endowments, and then took out loans once those funds were exhausted.
“The private providers are the level where the kids have to be clothed and fed,” Bianchi said. “When you look at the disruptions on that level, it really hit hard at the private agencies.”
Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services sued the state for non-payment of child welfare funds last September, but as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found that the withholding of funds did not cause irreparable harm since agencies were still able to provide critical services by borrowing funds and cutting other programs.
Now, agencies must pay back the interest from the loans they took out during the period of non-payment. The state will not reimburse these costs, according to Bianchi.
Cutbacks in Prevention
Under normal budgetary circumstances, many child welfare organizations dedicate significant resources to supporting at-risk families in an effort to prevent subsequent abuse or neglect. These efforts are aimed at keeping children and youth with their families, instead of being removed into foster care. Examples of these services include counseling for parents and parenting classes.
However, during the cash-strapped last six months, many Pennsylvania child welfare organizations have been forced to shift strategies away from child abuse prevention and family preservation toward more basic functions like focusing on investigating reports of child abuse and neglect.
“It’s a bad and dangerous cycle to not fund community-based services,” said Wolfe. “They are a safety net for high-risk and vulnerable families.”
Child welfare organizations are legally required to investigate incidents of child welfare and neglect under strict timeframes by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 among other laws. So when funds are tight, it forces child welfare organizations to make tough choices.
“Some providers decided to make cutbacks and lay off staff.” Bianchi said. “Many have cut back hours of prevention.”
A Demoralized Field
The protracted negotiations of 2015 have had significant repercussions on the state’s child welfare field as a whole. It is clear that the release of child welfare funds in December does not mean the end of delays and cutbacks in Pennsylvania’s child welfare funding.
“There’s a lot of long-term ramifications,” Bianchi said. “The biggest one is a lack of confidence and trust in our elected leadership across the board.”
For one, the blue-line funding only supports child welfare agencies for 9 months of the full fiscal year, so there is still much uncertainty about future funding streams.
And the ambiguity about last year’s budget has laid the groundwork for equally contentious budget negotiations this year. Advocates feel a sense of betrayal that neither the legislature nor the executive branch ensured support for these critical services.
“No one valued kids enough and said absolutely, these services needed to be funded,” said Bianchi. “People in our field really felt devalued, and it’s painful to pick up the pieces.”
Sam Waxman is a master’s student in social policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Prior to coming to Penn, she coordinated job training programs for low-income individuals in Washington, D.C., and was a consultant to philanthropists implementing innovative public sector initiatives.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.