Does county children's agency need more cash?

Is children's agency understaffed, overworked?
Posted at 10:03 AM, Jun 01, 2016

The agency tasked with caring for the county’s most vulnerable children has too many workers leaving their jobs, is understaffed and struggles to keep up with the growing number of kids coming through the doors. 

But Hamilton County Children’s Services doesn’t need to ask for any extra money from taxpayers to fix those problems, a report out Tuesday concludes.

Children’s Services will put a property tax levy on the ballot this fall, but county commissioners still need to approve how much leaders will ask from voters. The agency, which relies on the roughly $39 million county taxpayers give every year for a bulk of its funding, hasn’t asked for more money in 20 years.

And a report out Tuesday indicates Children’s Services can hold off – again – on asking for more money this year, despite a myriad of issues plaguing the county-run agency. The county paid a private consultant, Public Consulting Group, nearly $80,000 to evaluate the agency.

Among the biggest problems Children’s Services faces, according to the report:

Staffing: Turnover has skyrocketed in the last year, the report found. Nearly 43 percent of Children’s Services practitioners left the agency last year. The number of those employees leaving Children’s Services is above the national average and has more than doubled since 2011. The result? Workers are overloaded with too many cases. On average, a Hamilton County caseworker processes 35 children – a number that should sit at 15, according to government accountability groups.

“Workforce staffing was noted as a concern in the last levy cycle and has become increasingly critical in (sic) due to the increase in demand for services that impact child safety, permanence and well-being,” the report reads. 

More cases: While the agency has fewer staffers, the number of children and families asking for help has grown in recent years. In 2011 – the last time Children’s Services went to voters with a levy – Hamilton County had 888 children in foster care. Last year, 1,142 children entered the system in Hamilton County. Overall, more than 16,000 children rely on the agency for help, a number that has grown by 3,000 since 1996.

Heroin: Children’s Services leaders estimate 70 percent of infants are left in the care of the agency because of a heroin-related issue at home. Therapy and counseling for children hailing from a heroin-addicted home pose a challenge for the agency to tackle.

“(Children’s Services) has seen, and will continue to see, an increase of children coming into the protective services system and foster care due to their parents' opiate addiction,” according to the report.

Funding at risk: Leaders expect some federal funding – roughly $10 million of the agency’s $80 million budget – will be discontinued in 2019. Also, a change next year in the way Medicaid pays for foster care children could leave the county on the hook for paying more medical costs for those kids. Finance staff estimates the new Medicaid funding model could cost Children’s Services as much as $10 million every year.

How Will the Agency Stay Afloat? 

Children's Services director Moira Weir said the agency had a particularly tough year in 2015 with staff turnover. Three children the agency was monitoring died.

"We had a tough year in 2015 with retention," Weir said Wednesday during a presentation of the consultant's findings. "We had some tragic cases, those cases hit all of us very deeply." 

Weir said staff turnover currently sits at 12.6 percent so far this year, much lower than last year's high departure rate. 

Still, she said if the agency had a bigger budget, it could offer trauma intervention for employees who deal with tough cases. 

Children's Services has also struggled to offer help for kin -- such as grandparents, aunts or uncles -- caring for children in their parent's absence. 

Public Consulting Group presented a plan Tuesday that won’t result in a tax increase for Hamilton County homeowners, who currently pay $56 for every $100,000 worth of home they own.

Under their proposal, Children’s Services would draw on money from the agency’s surplus to get through the next five years.

Children’s Services saved roughly $115 million because of a decade-long dispute with the federal government over an audit that questioned how the agency spent funds from 2001 to 2004. Initial estimates called for the county to repay as much as $1 billion back. But, in March, the feds agreed to a $22.5 million payment instead.

That leaves Children’s Services with close to $94 million on hand -- enough money, the consultants predict, to compensate for dwindling state funds and growing caseloads.

The tax levy review committee, however, is "collectively concerned" that keeping the levy flat would put the agency's budget at risk during the next five years, Mike Wilson, the chairman of the tax levy review committee that will make a recommendation on the levy request, told a WCPO reporter Wednesday. 

A battle could be brewing among commissioners over what the levy should look like, too. 

County commissioners, who will make the final call on how much children’s services can ask voters this election, will weigh in on the report and the levy proposal next month.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel told WCPO this spring that he thought the agency could stave off a levy increase for another five years, thanks to the budget surplus.

“From all indications, Children’s Services, with the cuts they’re seeing, are either going to have to scale back their services or find other revenue sources,” Monzel said in April. “Is this settlement money an opportunity to fill that gap for the next four years so we don’t have to go for an increase in property taxes?”

That’s the exact outcome the county commission’s lone Democrat, Todd Portune, feared.

“There will be a move to say that because of the levy surplus that we either don’t need to change the (levy) or we might be able to reduce the levy,” Portune said earlier this year. “We would really paint a false picture of what the issues are confronting kids in the county.”