"Do more with less' should never apply to child safety

Johnston Sun Rise ·

To the Editor:

The State of Rhode Island is experiencing a budget shortfall and one of the ways by which the state intends to close the gap is by “adjusting” the rates it is paying providers of residential care for youth involved with the Department of Children, Youth and Families. This tactic has been employed numerous times in the past and its impact has been both damaging and de-stabilizing to non-profit child-serving agencies and the at-risk population we serve.

The state intends to cut up to 12 percent from providers of residential care in the middle of a fiscal year. Many agencies throughout the state would experience significant deficits; sending hundreds to the unemployment line and eliminating necessary services for our state’s most vulnerable children and families.

Last year, agencies engaged in a process in which the state procured services based on proposals submitted by many human service providers. This process catalyzed providers of residential care to propose new programs based on best practices in the industry and began a paradigm shift away from traditional residential treatment to a more innovative and dynamic way of providing residential services. We designed programs that have the potential to produce positive long-term outcomes if given adequate time to ramp up, re-assess and strengthen our service offerings.

St. Mary’s has significantly reduced length of stay for youth in our residential programs and our team has worked with youth and families post discharge to ensure that they remain together once reunified. The rate of re-entry for the children we serve is 12 percent as compared with the national average of 32-35 percent. This success is the result of adopting the Building Bridges Initiative framework as well as negotiating rates that would cover the costs of this innovative practice.

Providers signed contracts with DCYF that were negotiated in good faith in the winter 2017. As a result, we based our budget on this good faith agreement only to find that a year into the 18-month agreement, the state does not intend to honor it. The short-sighted decision-making that closes budget shortfalls on the backs of providers and ultimately vulnerable children and families continues the same cycle of “fits and starts” that never moves the system forward or solves the budgetary concerns that DCYF faces on a yearly basis. It cheats children and families of high quality care, stunts innovation and de-stabilizes the provider community.

The DCYF budget in 2007 was $293.1 million. In 2017, it is $216.4 million – in over 10 years, a 26 percent reduction in funding to a State Department that is responsible for the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable and traumatized children. The most recent proposed budget for FY 2019 reduces the DCYF budget by another $5 million. The issues our children face are more complex than ever with the opioid crisis affecting so many adults and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety so prevalent in today’s youth. During this same period, DCYF has been called to task for child deaths and numerous other shortcomings. The tired old phrase “do more with less” should never apply to child safety, yet in Rhode Island it does. How many child deaths or near fatalities will it take before our decision-makers take this seriously and recognize the importance of investing in our at-risk youth?

It is important for those we serve to have stability, which requires a stable workforce. The workforce in the human service field is among the lowest paid of any industry, typically because reimbursement for the services we provide barely covers expenses. When an agency finds itself reacting to rate reductions that are made haphazardly, decisions to reduce personnel are necessary. Members of our workforce cannot sustain that kind of uncertainty. This leads to turnover of our valuable employees and sadly, people leaving the field altogether. There is a human toll that is exacted each time decisions are made to cut funding.

If our public officials are serious about “fixing” DCYF, they would be wise to reflect on the decisions they have made, and continue to make, that short-change the Department, forcing DCYF staff to do a challenging job without adequate resources. When DCYF experiences a failure, rather than pointing fingers, it is appropriate for decision-makers to look in the mirror. Providers continuously re-assess what is working and what is not so that we can improve service delivery. Our state officials should be held to the same standard. To ensure the well-being of our state’s vulnerable and at-risk youth, it is imperative that we all work together to give them the same opportunities that so many of us have had.

Carlene Casciano-McCann, LMHC

Executive Director

St. Mary’s Home for Children

North Providence