The Ohio investment plan: In Lorain County, federal money once locked up for foster care now safely reduces the need for foster care

Investing in Ohio's families and futures
RUNTIME: 00:08:36
RUNTIME: 00:08:36
The story of how a suburban-rural community on the shores of Lake Erie transformed its approach to keeping children safe was based on a simple question: What if we could invest more of our federal child welfare funding beyond placing children in foster care?

Fifteen years later, the results provide a compelling example of how changing the federal child welfare financing system can spur effective, innovative services that safely reduce the need for foster care and improve the lives of children and their families.

Today, Lorain County is far from alone. Thanks to the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act of 2011 and previous legislation, communities in 21 states and the District of Columbia now have a similar opportunity to demonstrate how making smart, effective investments of federal funds in the right kinds of services at the right time can help more children grow up in safe, stable and permanent families.

And the number is growing.

The question today is how soon a comprehensive reform of the federal child welfare financing system under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act can provide all communities across America the same opportunities to succeed.

A movement for change

The success of the Title IV-E demonstration projects in some states has prompted a larger, national conversation about the urgent need to improve the way the federal government funds child welfare.

“In the ‘90s the federal government knew that Tile IV-E needed to look different,” said Jennifer Justice, deputy director, Ohio Office of Families and Children. “The federal government had the wisdom to say, ‘Let’s let some states try something different.’ ”

Among the demonstration projects pioneers was Lorain County. With approximately 280,000 people in 1998, Lorain County was small enough to make a rapid adjustment in child welfare services but large enough to create a model that could be applied by big-city systems.

Like every county in Ohio, Lorain County administers child welfare, not the state.  Additionally, Ohio counties’ local taxing authority gives them some budget autonomy.

This made the shift more manageable for Lorain County Children Services Director Gary Crow. Using the available local control in 1997, he began to shift federal money from simply funding foster care to a variety of prevention programs including in-home services, fast-track adoptions and other behavioral health and education programs.

The Lorain County’s child welfare system, which once spent nearly 50 percent of its budget on foster care, now spends 11 percent on foster care.

Improvements are not limited to Lorain or the other 16 waiver counties, which account for one-third of the state’s children in care. Other counties often adopted the innovative ideas started by demonstration project counties. There are 88 counties in Ohio.

Taken together, the results have been dramatic. Since the start of the demonstration projects in Ohio, the need for foster care in counties with demonstration projects has declined 39 percent. At the same time, children in demonstration project counties are more likely to be served in their own home, cared for by relatives or kin, spend fewer days in care and achieve permanency sooner, studies show.

“You don’t always get the best services when you try to fit children into funding,” said Judge Debra Boros, Domestic Relations Court, Lorain County. “When you are fitting funding to the needs of a child, you get much better outcomes and much better services.”

The best shot

But implementing IV-E demonstration projects isn’t without risk, child welfare advocates acknowledge.

A demonstration project requires a comprehensive spending plan, innovative programs and determined leadership. Additionally, under existing law the permanency of demonstration projects isn’t certain.

States and municipalities must apply for a waiver renewal every five years. This means that any overhaul of an existing program might not remain intact if the demonstration project ended.

This is why child welfare advocates are looking for certainty.

“(The demonstration project) gives us our best shot in a preventive fashion, in a proactive fashion, in a professional fashion to ensure the best possible services are delivered,” said Dave Boyer, director, Muskingum County Children Services, Ohio.

“We’ve got to get it to a point that as a nation this is what we do.”

Protect Ohio Demonstration Counties

  • Ashtabula
  • Belmont
  • Clark
  • Coshocton
  • Crawford
  • Fairield
  • Franklin
  • Greene
  • Hamilton
  • Highland
  • Lorain
  • Medina
  • Muskingum
  • Portage
  • Richland
  • Stark

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