A federal judge has been trying for years to get Ohio to quit dragging its feet and start paying kinship caregivers their due under federal law. Ohio counties are saying there’s not enough money in the state’s pending budget proposal to make it feasible.
Angela Sausser, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, who represents the counties’ children’s services agencies, went before the state Senate Finance Committee on June 2 in a last-ditch effort to persuade the committee to pony up an additional $50 million annually above what the House-passed version of the budget proposes. The House proposal mirrored Gov. Mike DeWine’s.
“We know this is a big ask,” Sausser told lawmakers, according to her prepared remarks. “As we shared before this Committee and the Senate Health Committee, the next two years are pivotal for Ohio’s county public children services agencies with significant state and federal changes occurring. Without this new investment, what is intended to be state and federal transformation mandates will instead have a crippling impact on county PCSAs, erode their stabilization efforts and prevent counties from beginning to transform the children services system.”
Ohio’s child welfare system is indeed under pressure.
For one thing, the state has been under a federal appellate court order since 2017 to start paying kinship caregivers the same amount it would pay its licensed nonrelatives for looking after children in the state’s child welfare system, yet it has not done so. Last year, the state passed a law that it hoped would meet with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court’s approval, but Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy firm, sued, claiming the law doesn’t come close to filling the state’s obligation because approved relative caregivers get only a fraction of the pay as their nonrelative counterparts and are subject to time limitations.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the county agencies are also dealing with fallout from the death of 16-year-old foster youth Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot dead by a Columbus police officer in April outside her foster home. Critics, including federal lawmakers from the state and beyond, have called for an investigation into how the system failed to help her family stay together and what that says about whether the state looks after foster youth properly.
Bryant and three siblings started out placed with a grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, but were removed from her care and placed in a foster home after about 16 months because Hammonds couldn’t afford to keep her house. Despite the court order, approved kinship caregivers like Hammonds receive a monthly maintenance payment of — at most — $302 per child, while licensed foster caregivers receive $615 to $2,371 in most counties.
In addition to the kinship care payments, counties are also preparing for when the landmark federal Family First Prevention Services Act takes effect this October. It creates two costly new tasks for them: enforcing tougher standards for congregate care settings or group homes and new flexibility to use what has usually been called “foster care money” to prevent kids from entering foster care in the first place.
Although budget writers so far haven’t included the reform money for foster care, the Senate is calling for a 5% income tax cut that would cost the state almost $875 million. The House proposed a 2% cut that would erase $380 million. Backers say the tax cuts are critical to maintaining the state’s COVID-affected small businesses and manufacturers.