Monday, March 19, 2007

House strips $7.5 million from budget, which also costs them the equivalent in federal matching funds

Advocates seek funding for abused children
Increase removed from House bill
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, March 10, 2007, pg. B5.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Leaders of centers that care for abused children are fighting to revive a proposed funding increase that they fear is dying in the final days of the legislative session.

"It is a true crisis," said Gordon Brown, president of Home of the Innocents in Louisville, one of several representatives of the private centers who visited the Capitol this week.

"We're here bending ears and twisting arms," said Ralph Risimini, board president of St. Joseph Children's Home in Louisville.

A coalition of about 40 nonprofit, mostly faith-based children's residential centers in Kentucky says that without an increase in state payments for children they serve, some facilities will be forced to make cuts or close.

An increase of about $7.5 million — which would attract another $7.5 million in federal matching funds — initially was proposed in a House spending bill. But it was stripped from the legislation in the House budget committee.

Kentucky has no residential centers of its own and relies on the network of private centers to care for some of the most severely disturbed children the state has removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.

Some lawmakers said this week that it still may not be too late to provide an increase to the centers — the first in seven years.

"This is something that has to be dealt with," said Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Russell, the chairman of the Senate budget committee. "My concern is that we are losing places for these children."

Private centers have been forced to cut services or close because of rising costs, according to the advocates.

"We are struggling to serve these kids, and in some cases struggling to stay open,"
said Bart Baldwin, president of Children's Alliance, which represents the centers.

Borders and Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said lawmakers could restore the funding in a conference committee in the closing days of the session. Lawmakers will complete the bulk of their work next week, with two days set aside to deal with any gubernatorial vetoes later this month.

Lee, chairman of the human services budget subcommittee, said House leaders had the $7.5 million removed from a spending bill because "they look at it as reopening the budget."

"I look at it as a crisis," he said.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services supports the increase, and Gov. Ernie Fletcher recommended it in his list of proposed spending items.

Fletcher this week urged lawmakers to approve the increase.

"Nonprofits, such as the Home of the Innocents, have an urgent need for funding to ensure their ability to take care of a growing number of children," he said in a statement released by his office.

The state currently pays centers about $170 to $180 per day to care for each child — an amount that hasn't kept up with rising costs of 24-hour care, according to representatives of the facilities. The costs include housing, staffing, counseling and other services.

To make up the shortfall, all centers raise private funds, including donations from affiliated churches. But it's getting harder to close the gap, they say.

"Our organization is looking at a significant deficit this year, and the deficit's been growing every year," Risimini said.

Advocates for the centers say that, even as the number of children removed from homes is rising, private centers are losing beds.

About 7,000 children are now in state care, most of them in foster care, compared with about 5,500 in 2000. Over that same period, the number of private residential slots has decreased from about 1,800 to 1,400.

Sixty children are currently in more costly out-of-state treatment centers, in most cases because child welfare officials can't find a spot at a Kentucky facility. Lee said it costs the state up to three times as much to send children out of state.

Jerry Cantrell, executive director of Bellewood Presbyterian Homes for Children in Anchorage, said most children at residential centers have already failed in other settings and have nowhere else to go.

By the time they reach centers such as Bellewood, most already have cycled through a series of placements in foster care and psychiatric hospitals.

Every time a child is moved, "you have to start all over," Cantrell said. "It is a tragedy."


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