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Pennsylvania counties' child services struggling

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By Tim Puko
Monday, Oct. 25, 2010

Nicole Dailey spent her high school years insecure, estranged from her family and bouncing between foster homes.

Going away to college seemed a remote possibility, at best.

But Dailey is in her sophomore year at Edinboro University because of Allegheny County's Independent Living Initiative. In years past, Daily, 19, would have been too old for foster care and likely without a support network for college. Now, the county and state help pay for her books and housing, as well as for caseworkers to help her learn about finances, find work and cope with nightmares of abuse she suffered as a child.

"I learned a lot of from (my caseworker) because she didn't give up," said Dailey, of Pittsburgh's Manchester neighborhood. "I don't think I would have had the motivation to do all of this without her. You have to have people around you who care, and who are leaders, if you want to become a leader. Now I'm a leader."

The state is offering Allegheny County $2.1 million to expand the Independent Living Initiative next year. But because of tight budgets and shifting money sources, the county might not be able to put up matching money to do that — or to expand other programs for which the state is offering money. County budget officials asked the Department of Human Services to cut almost $6 million next year.

County budget officials are giving the department leeway in figuring out where to cut, and believe it might be able to save enough in administrative costs to leave programs unchanged. If officials can find more money before final financial reports are due to the state at the end of next summer, they could put that toward program expansion, budget officials said.

"It'll be a challenge, but we'll try to minimize changes to (programs for) our children," department Director Marc Cherna said. "The state is putting more demands; there's more of a need for a county match to get these state funds. And the county match only comes from property tax, and property tax is not about to get raised."

Allegheny County isn't alone. Across the state, child service agencies are struggling to navigate a complicated and changing funding system. State and federal governments are cutting back on money offered for flexible use and restricting money to certain programs. Fewer local tax dollars are available to match the money offered.

The state and federal governments plan to funnel $251 million to six Western Pennsylvania counties for child welfare programs next year. Even in counties where the money coming in was stable, officials worry that might dry up because of the economy and the state's financial problems. State Auditor General Jack Wagner has warned that the state could have a $4 billion to $5 billion deficit next year.

"It does impact what you can do with programs. You certainly don't want to expand them. You don't have any money to expand them," said Dayna Revay, administrator of Beaver County Children and Youth Services. "It's concerning. You can't depend on local (government for) dollars; they're struggling as well."

Because of recent staff changes, Westmoreland County doesn't have enough caseworkers to help families of juvenile offenders, said Brandon Yorty, chief fiscal officer at the county Children's Bureau.

It's a compounding problem, because the federal government will pay to help delinquents only if the county sends caseworkers to assist those children and their families. Without hiring workers, the county will have to decline $300,000 to $500,000 of federal money this year, Yorty said.

Butler County had to move $901,000 in state money from its general fund into specific programs, said Ann Brown, finance director for county Human Services. Now, the county no longer can respond to parents who seek help when they report an unruly child, unless they can prove the situation is dangerous, said Charles Johns, assistant director of Children and Youth Services.

"I don't want to say it's bad, but it's definitely an adjustment," Johns said. "We need to be a lot more specific in the services we provide now."

Child advocacy groups at times lobbied the state to restrict funding as a way to ensure that counties reform programs and adopt best practices.

Federal officials mandated that Pennsylvania agencies be more conservative about using money designated for needy families, state Department of Public Welfare officials said.

"If you want money to be spent on certain programs or services, you stipulate that, and then counties decide if they want to allocate their money to those services," Welfare spokesman Michael Race said.

But moving money out of counties' general funds — the most flexible account — could be costlier long term, child advocates say. Counties often rely on general funds to develop programs and run early-intervention programs, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of Protect Our Children Committee, a Harrisburg-based coalition of parents, child service providers and child welfare officials.

It is easier and cheaper in the long run to help a family with an unruly child than to react when a child hurts someone or commits a crime, advocates say. But funding restrictions can make it harder for counties to help with day care, parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and other family services, Beaver County's Revay said.

"Those are the programs that ... we know are most likely to not only help families and kids but save money in the long run, (yet) are still the first programs we cut," Palm said. "(Pennsylvania's) is a generous system, but also counties are forced to do back-end services instead of more effective front-end services."



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