Money woes underscore child services troubles

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Somewhere in the $2.2 billion Indiana has socked away in cash reserves is money that Tiffany Girard says was needed to help the three foster children she used to care for before quitting Indiana's foster care system in frustration.

Girard was one of about two dozen parents, grandparents, community health providers and others who told state lawmakers last week about their struggles with the state's Department of Child Services. But Girard was far and away the most scathing as she talked about being rejected by the state as she sought care for three children she used to care for.

"I have always heard that what the foster care system needs is good homes and loving people who care," she said. "And I can assure you I have met numerous foster families who care a great deal, and their greatest frustration is not the level of payment they receive or how quickly they receive it, it is the frustration day in and day out of being denied services for children they have come to care for."

Throughout the ongoing debate over Indiana's Department of Child Services, money has been something of a "lurking variable"—or invisible factor. The high-profile departure of former Director James Payne last week, following The Indianapolis Star's investigation into his involvement in a DCS case involving his grandchildren, and problems with the centralized hotline for reporting abuse and neglect have dominated discussions.

But the money is hard to ignore.

Newly minted director John Ryan blamed two things earlier this year for the high turnover among family caseworkers, media scrutiny and low pay. Ryan said in June—at a press conference touting the restoration of money for services that were slashed when the state cut $100 million from child services last year—that his agency couldn't afford more deep cuts like those he weathered during and immediately after the recession.

DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland says cuts made during the recession did not affect reimbursement rates for child care providers and that fiscal concerns "do not factor into the decision on whether or not to refer a child for services." She also notes that some money was restored this year.

"Provider reimbursements have not been cut. DCS reduced funding to the Healthy Families Indiana program and reduced rates for community based providers. These adjustments were made as a result of the statewide economic crisis," McFarland said.

As in many agencies of state government (and similar to other states throughout the union), Indiana's funding for programs and services is complicated. The state took over spending on child services from the counties as part of the property tax cap and sales tax increase approved by lawmakers in 2008.

The state also established new rules at the start of the year for paying child care providers, including a requirement they submit bills to the federal government first before seeking aid from the state, as part of a plan to get more money from Medicaid.

At his somewhat routine budget press conferences through the end of last year and the start of this year, Gov. Mitch Daniels would say that services were not just maintained, but improved, as he forced rigor and efficiency on what was an otherwise sloppy government he inherited in 2005.

Foster parents and service providers who testified about their concerns told a different story.

Rick Snyder, a board member for the Villages of Indiana, which works with the state to match children with foster families, said his group will lose $400,000 because of reimbursement cuts.

"As a board member, as a parent, as a citizen I would implore you to see that DCS underwrites the true, actual and responsible cost of services for these vulnerable children," Snyder said. "Our agency will lose $400,000 this year because of the drastic cuts in reimbursement for the children for whom the DCS and the state are parents."

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