Hearing reveals child welfare a key spending driver

OBSERVER Photo by Jimmy McCarthy County legislators met with Health and Human Services’ administrators Wednesday morning for a budget discussion. Increases within the department’s budget come from child welfare expenses, according to department leaders.

MAYVILLE — Juvenile delinquent care and placing children in foster or higher care institutions are driving increases in local spending.

Budget discussions between county legislators and Health and Human Services’ administrators Wednesday morning in Mayville revealed the opioid problem as a main contributor.

More than 360 cases are being handled by county Child Protective Services workers. Staff within the department average about 18 cases, and eight workers have cases in the range of 20 to 31. Department leaders say most case workers are working overtime and turnover is frequent.

According to Christine Schuyler, county social services commissioner, a large number of child welfare cases relate to substance abuse issues in the household.

“Paternal drug use is a factor in about 75 percent of CPS investigations that are turned over for preventive and/or foster care services,” she said. “Federal law mandates permanency for children within 24 hours, and because the recovery period is so long and the chance of relapse is high, it is difficult to achieve sobriety and have their children returned.”

Schuyler said the ripple effect means more children are removed from their parents. Children are also suffering traumatic experiences that warrant a higher level of care than provided by a relative or foster families.

Costs associated with children in a foster home or a higher level of care amounted to $4.3 million in 2016. Figures within the 2018 tentative budget show an increase in figures to about $4.7 million. Federal and state aid usually account for more than $3 million.

Administrators say more children are going to higher level facilities, like a residential treatment center or therapeutic foster home. In most cases, they enter at an early age and stay for a while. Added to that are rising charges for stays in higher care facilities, which are impacting the county budget.

One of the biggest cost drivers is juvenile delinquent care, or those who are in the custody of the state Office of Children and Family Services. In 2013, two children were placed in the state’s custody as ordered by the courts. That number has risen to 17 today, and the local cost is projected to be $1.2 million in 2018.

Schuyler said high juvenile numbers and care days stem from complex family issues and severe trauma with escalating behaviors, drugs and sex trafficking.

Another problem Schuyler noted is the growing charge to the county from the state. Several years ago, the rate for stays in a state facility was $300 to $400 a day. Today, the rate has exploded to close to $1,000 a day.

“Locally, we haven’t had extreme issues with this for many years because the number of youth in OCFS custody and lengths of stays were greatly reduced,” Schuyler said. “Unfortunately for Chautauqua County, the number of youth in state custody and length of stays skyrocketed to coincide with the surprise rate hike.”

Last month, the county received a $715,000 bill from the state for juvenile detention charges dating back to 2015. The county budgets around $340,000 annually to cover the expense since they don’t know when the bill will come or how much it will be.

Schuyler said she believes the county must proactively intervene with children and families in order to keep them out of the child welfare and criminal justice systems. Schuyler said families deal with many complex issues — the top one being substance abuse.

“Prevention has to be our No. 1 priority. We have to wrap services around these high-risk youth as young as possible to try and give them the best chance at being successful in life,” she said. “We’re looking at mentoring programs, community service projects to grow self-esteem and self-worth. There’s a gamut of interventions that can be put into place as early as possible.”

Schuyler noted that the county has seen a decrease in the number of infants being placed into foster care. Schuyler said she credits the county’s maternal child health home visiting programs that began in 2014 and 2015.

“Infants placed into foster care decreased from 33 in 2015 to 20 in 2016 while the placement of 1-year-old children decreased from 10 in 2015 to five in 2016,” she said.