Flexible Funding Improves Child Welfare in Florida

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There’s new evidence that a more flexible system for spending federal child welfare money helps to reduce abuse and keep kids out of foster care.

 Under a plan that allows Florida to spend Title IV-E foster care money on front-end services before youths enter foster care, a new evaluation finds that fewer children are being placed in out-of-home care, more foster children are being reunited with their families, community-based services have expanded and agencies are instituting more innovative approaches for at-risk families.

“It gave us the flexibility to spend money on keeping kids in their own homes instead of being removed,” said Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, one of the “lead agencies” providing state-funded child welfare services in Florida.

The findings add to other promising results from efforts to shift child welfare services more toward prevention and reunification. This particular federal program, however, raises questions about how to fund such efforts.

Under the federal approach, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gives states a waiver to spend funds they get under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act on efforts to keep kids out of foster care. Normally, Title IV-E money is spent on services and administrative costs for youth in foster care. 

Those experiments began under the Clinton Administration in the late 1990s in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. The approaches, which were somewhat different in each state, found some promising results in reducing out-of-home placements and the duration of those placements, and increasing permanency placements for youths who had been removed.

The administration of President George W. Bush saw the waiver as a potential model and offered it again in 2006. Only Florida and California accepted (the latter for just two counties, Alameda County and Los Angeles). One reason for state reticence: They had to accept a cap on their federal Title IV-E dollars for each year, getting a block grant rather than being paid for actual costs based on the cases they handle.


Results in Florida

The Florida experiment began in October 2006 and was explained in this story. The Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida has produced several reports on its implementation and impact. Outcome data are not yet available for California, according to the project website, which provides reports about how the project works, including process evaluations.

The Mental Health Institute’s latest brief, released in January, looks at data from Florida’s 67 counties from fiscal 2007-07 through fiscal 2008-09, including from the lead agencies, many of which are nonprofits, that carry out child welfare services in designated areas of the state. The brief says that since the waiver, those lead agencies have seen:

* The number of children served annually decrease by 29 percent.

* The average number of children placed in out-of-home care decline by 27.6 percent. In the 12-county area served by Big Bend Community Based Care, Watkins said, the agency’s number of youth in foster care has declined by about 46 percent.

* No statistically significant difference in the proportion of children placed in out-of-home care after receiving services at home.

* A “significant increase in the number of children reunified or placed with relatives.”

* A “significant reduction” in the average proportion of youth who exited care in fiscal 2007-08, then re-entered out-of-home care within 12 months after their discharge.

* No significant measurable change in educational, dental, physical, or mental/behavioral health services, because of lack of resources to carry them out or lack of documentation.