State of the States

States struggle with trimming budgets wile maintaining human services funding

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State employees have been asked repeatedly to make more from less: less time, less money, and less resources. Not to mention an increased workload. But in the process of crunching numbers, have state officials lost sight of the critical needs of their most vulnerable residents?

"Each year the number of children we serve continues to rise, so we are having to help more children with a flat budget," says Jennifer Ferguson of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a CWLA member. "And this could get worse if Congress makes cuts to federal programs."

Furloughs, employed as a way to slash costs while retaining workers, have become the answer to many states' budget woes. In 2009, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle signed a bill that forced state employees to take a total of 16 furlough days for the 2009-2011 fiscal biennium. That same year, California state employees battled against then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to assign three furlough days per month. In 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued an administrative order doubling the number of furlough days for some state employees, from 12 to 24, for 2011. For state employees like Gina Santacroce of Oregon, it is a hard pill to swallow. "State workers [are] again sacrificing furloughs and decrease in pay," she says.

Utah took a unique approach to dealing with its budget gap. Rather than furlough workers, the state government created a four-day, 40-hour work week. Closing offices and facilities saved the state money and resources without decreasing employee salaries. Other states began to take notice and, for a while, it appeared as though they would follow. However, Utah abruptly ended this schedule in the fall of 2011.

To make up for budget shortfalls, tough choices had to be made. Almost every state implemented hiring freezes, pay cuts, or layoffs to deal with budget gaps. Over 400,000 state and local government jobs have been lost since the economic downturn in 2008, and more may follow. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the cuts in critical state services occurred when the need for those services rose. Some experts argue that these cuts actually have made the recession worse by reducing overall economic activity.

Closing offices for a few days per year seems like a practical way to save money and avoid increased layoffs, but does this worsen existing problems? The needs of human services recipients do not abate simply because the state mandates a shutdown. The major hurdle that agencies face is prolonged, and perhaps even increased, cuts to human services, including child welfare. Since 2000, there has been a decrease in the number of children in and entering foster care, and slightly more children exiting it. The most recent figure provided by Adoption & Foster Care Analysis and Reporting Systems (AFCARS) cites nearly half a million children in foster care in 2010. With an increasing number of adults out of work and under financial stress, that number is likely to increase. The financial stability of families during the past decade played a large role in the shrinking numbers, but so did existing policies and strategies of human services providers. Diverting too far from the successful path may have unintentional repercussions.

The question of furloughs seems to have become somewhat taboo in the midst of budget cuts, an unspoken compromise between employees and the state. That is not to suggest workers have not challenged such mandates; unions around the nation have, and still are, fighting increasing unpaid leave. Many non-state agencies have been forced to make similar decisions, or are presently mulling their options. It is a difficult position to be in, weighing program budgets with employee salaries and the needs of children. Agency directors considering furloughs may benefit from observing how various states have addressed the problem, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

The following three agencies represent states that have and have not implemented furloughs and demonstrate how child welfare providers are coping with the decision. These agencies have provided insights on how to juggle fiscal and ethical responsibilities. Keep in mind that according to AFCARS data, in 2010 Oregon and Georgia had over 8,000 children in state foster care, while Arkansas had just below 4,000.

Time Management in Oregon

Oregon's state government recently reinstated "Furlough Fridays," much to the ire of its employees. From September 2011 to May 2013, the majority of state agencies will be closed for ten Fridays, the result of negotiations between the state and unions. Employees making over $30,000 must take an additional two to four furlough days. Oregon's Department of Human Services (DHS) will be closed on these days, but certain subdivisions will remain open. "All agencies are required to take furlough days, but there are exceptions for 24-hour care facilities (like Oregon State Hospital) and public safety agencies," explains Gene Evans, DHS Communications Director and Child Welfare Communications Officer. This includes the division of Children, Adults, and Families (CAF), the appendage of DHS providing child welfare services. Like many states, Child Protective Services employees will remain on call to respond to reports of abuse or neglect, a small assurance for the thousands of Oregon children receiving child welfare services. The demand for state-provided human services has tripled since 2008, the same time budget cuts began.

Michelle Cole, a reporter for The Oregonian, has observed crowded waiting rooms while visiting DHS but has not received any calls reporting an inability to access government services on furlough days. "But I'm guessing people who are struggling to get by may not have the time to stop and call me to complain," she adds.

Optimizing technological tools and improving employee dynamics, all in the name of time management, has helped Oregon's DHS workers stay afloat amid a wave of cuts and an increased workload. Those seeking services on "Furlough Fridays" do have access to online services, including applications. Caseworker Application Process Interface (CAPI) is a customized online interface streamlining electronic applications to caseworkers, and is part of the agency's goal to both modernize and be eco-friendly. CAPI allows quick processing-- lessening the burden on employees--while maintaining quality services for residents. DHS offers training tips for workers and encourages employees to suggest improvements.

Another solution to the problem of more work and less time has been reevaluating time management. As part of their Transformation Initiative, a strategy aimed at improving state services, DHS has implemented Lean Daily Management System (LDMS), a time management approach meant to nurture work groups and spur efficiency. "It is a practice that gave services same day/next day by eliminating steps in order to meet the heavy increase," explains DHS employee Santacroce. The system is comprised of five key elements, including routine employee huddles, a primary visual display illustrating the work group's progress, and an action sheet system listing suggestions. These strategies have been adapted from William Lareau's "Office Kaizen: Transforming Office Operations into a Strategic Advantage." As one DHS employee bulletin states, "the use of LDMS strengthens individuals, teams, our process and our services to clients."

According to Evans, DHS only has about two-thirds of the staff needed to meet the publics need, a worrisome figure for both state residents and employees. CAF, responsible for foster care and adoption programs (as well as self-sufficiency and child safety programs), is included in this shortfall. "I know our managers and front line staff are working at their absolute maximum to keep up with increasing demand--and have been for more than two years. This same stress-inducing staffing level is found in our child welfare programs and other 'safety net' programs across Oregon," says Evans.

And if a stress-induced moment of panic occurs, "understand the crisis is just that, a crisis. Implement best practices as much as possible and know the team environment alleviates stress by continuing to monitor and check in with each other," advises Santacroce.

Finding Balance in Arkansas

Arkansas is an interesting case. On one hand, the state has managed to avoid mandatory furloughs of its employees. On the other, it has had to make difficult decisions to compensate. In FY 2010 Arkansas reported a state budget gap of $100 million, about 2.2 percent of the state's general budget. The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS), a CWLA member, and its Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have seen a drop in employment for various reasons, including department reshuffling. Only the counties with the greatest need will be allowed to fill vacant positions. Furthermore, Arkansas decided to pass legislation for this fiscal year that would cut reimbursements for room and board to therapeutic foster care in half. Foster parents of an estimated 285 children receiving therapeutic foster care are expected to maintain the same care for their children with nearly half their usual budget.

"As the demand for [state] services increased and federal support decreased, we were faced with making cuts to the Division of Children and Family Services budget. This presented us with tough decision, but we had no choice but to reduce our expenses," explains Amy Webb, director of communications at DHS. According to the state, the cut in allowances only represents about a 10 percent decrease in funding for therapeutic foster homes.

Ferguson of Arkansas Advocates worries that it may be too difficult for a dwindling number of staff to handle increasing workload, and that the state might see a repeat of the crisis that the state's child welfare system saw in 2001. She remembers that "[Arkansas] had a staffing crisis that led to more deaths in the child welfare system. It took our state several years to recover from that staffing crisis and we think it is critical that staff positions not be cut again."

Treatment Homes, Inc. (THINC), a therapeutic foster care program providing psychological and emotional support for children, has a contract with the DHS and has been affected by the recent cuts. While DCFS has offered additional support to balance the cuts, such as a quarterly clothing allowance, it does not hide the fact that recruiting new therapeutic foster parents-already a major challenge-has been made more difficult. "Recruiting additional parents is an even bigger challenge now," Executive Director Consevella James explains. "The budget cuts have limited the pool of potential therapeutic foster parents because families will be expected to use more of their financial resources to help support the foster children."

Furloughs have been avoided, but at what cost? Assuring a balanced approach to budget cuts seems to be the least detrimental course of action. The cuts to therapeutic foster parents, among others, have forced organizations to be more open-minded about alternate sources of funding. James urges other foster care providers to consider how the overall economy may impact their specific programs. "Fundraising, diversification of funding, as well as diversification of services, becomes more critical for nonprofit organizations. Creativity and flexibility continues to be a guide for survival during these economic times. More importantly, be prepared for the unexpected and plan for change on an ongoing basis," says James.

Setting Priorities in Georgia

In 2009, Georgia's Department of Human Services (DHS) commissioner, B.J. Walker, announced that the agency would be closed for 12 days between September 2009 and June 2010. The majority of the furloughs would be scheduled on Fridays as to have "minimum impact on the availability of services." The furloughs affected 9,000 employees who work with Georgia's most vulnerable residents, including over 7,000 children in custody of DHS Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), a CWLA member. DFCS announced four furloughs days for the first half of FY 2011, an improvement from previous years. However, no explanation was offered as to why other DHS subdivisions have not announced any furlough days.

Georgia's decision to close DFCS offices while keeping others open is matter of priorities, according to Dr. Normer Adams, Executive Director of Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, a CWLA member. He explains that the state has organized its priorities in three categories: "must do's," "need to do's," and "nice to do's." The "must do's" include legislative orders deemed top priority by the current administration. "Need to do's" offer support services for legislation but are optional. "Nice to do's" hold the lowest priority, and comprise of services that, in a perfect world, would be included in budget negotiations. Unsurprisingly, the state budget of the last few fiscal years has had a hard time finding money for anything other than "must do's."

DFCS assures residents that despite closures, virtual services will be still be available via its website, and that employees will still respond to complaints of child abuse or neglect. Ravae Graham, DHS Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs and Communications, explains how this works: "Since Child Protective Services (CPS) is a 24/7 service, on furlough days counties still have rotated case managers who are on call to take and respond to CPS referrals." If there is an emergency, residents are advised to call 911.

"Employees are at the mercy, essentially, of their supervisors. And whenever you have limited time with expanded responsibilities, you then have to prioritize what is going to get done," says Adams--meaning that carefully considering what services will be reduced or closed is critical.

What are workers to do? "In the end, when it gets fat to muscle to bone, the supervisor has to decide what the must do's we have to do and determine what the priorities are," Adams says. The outcomes of recent DHS board meetings on budgeting for the upcoming fiscal years--specifically the 2 percent cuts that Governor Nathan Deal has instructed--appear to be somewhat optimistic. Several programs initially proposed, including Child Welfare Services, were exempt from cuts, and the board recently voted against a proposal reducing the budget for child care. It seems Georgia is getting its priorities in order for 2012.

Fanna Gebre is a former editorial intern at CWLA.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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