Special report: Foster care numbers, costs rise sharply
A tsunami of opioid-affected children is flooding Ohio’s children services agencies, exploding county budgets and overwhelming available foster care resources. According to a report released today by Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a thousand more Ohio kids will be spending the holidays in foster care this year, compared to 2016, instead of at home with their family. The statewide membership organization for county children services agencies added that by next Christmas, it could be two thousand more if the rate at which children are entering custody due to the opioid epidemic continues along its current trajectory.
According to PCSAO’s executive director, Angela Sausser, Ohio led the nation from 2002 to 2010 in safely reducing the number of children in out-of-home care – by 42 percent. “But the Great Recession followed by the opioid crisis led to more children being drawn into the system, and these kids are more complex, their trauma more challenging, and their placement costs dramatically higher than Ohio’s child protection agencies have ever witnessed,” Sausser said.
The numbers suggest an alarming trend. On July 1, 2013, 12,654 children were in agency custody. Four years later, that number had climbed to 15,145 kids. In October the number surpassed 15,500. “Many of these kids watched their parents overdose or die,” she said. “They are missing milestones with their families such as birthday parties and ringing in the New Year, and many are staying in care longer due to their parents’ relapsing.”
If entry rates continue at this pace, more than 20,000 Ohio kids will be in care on any given day by 2020, and the cost of placing them in foster homes and residential facilities – where more traumatized children can get the behavioral health services they need – will surge by 67 percent to over half a billion dollars a year. “We are sounding the alarm now – we need help,” Sausser said. “We need substantially more state resources before we lose the ability to provide essential services to vulnerable children.”
The legislature stepped in this year to provide more funding to beleaguered county children services agencies, adding $15 million to the $45 million that Ohio kicks in to match federal and local funds each year. But foster care placement costs alone have risen by an estimated $45 million since last year, and that doesn’t count staffing or other agency services.
The rise in foster care placements doesn’t even account for all of the children placed with relatives. “Placing abused and neglected children with kin leads to better long-term outcomes and is far less costly to government, but it means that grandparents on fixed incomes and aunts with kids of their own must find a way to pay for food, clothes, child care and other expenses,” Sausser said. “The legislature stepped up again and provided $15 million a year in federal funds to create child care assistance for kinship families. However, that program has been delayed.”
Voters in over half the counties generously support property tax levies for children services, but as a whole, counties already shoulder more than half the cost of paying for child protection in Ohio, which relies more heavily on local dollars than any other state in the nation. Federal finance reform that would have helped address some of these issues was on the horizon last year, but stalled.
“Ohio needs a long-term solution to this crisis – and leadership to get us there before agency budgets collapse and our workforce jumps ship,” Sausser said. “We already have a lack of available foster homes in Ohio. With the projected increases, we will have children sleeping in county agency lobbies with no available foster family to take them in.”
She added that California has embarked on an ambitious reform initiative that is realigning services along a continuum of care, a model that offers innovative and cost-saving ideas that could be adopted in Ohio. But such an initiative will require leadership and the state’s investment in children services.