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DCYF Spends $10 Million Sending Kids Out of State

Friday, September 21, 2012

 

The Department of Children, Youth, and Families spends about $10 million a year sending children under its care to high-priced out-of-state facilities as far away as Florida and Tennessee, state records show.

In 2011, Rhode Island DCYF spent $9.7 million to send 108 children over the course of the fiscal year to 33 residential treatment facilities in other states, at an average annual cost of $90,000 per child. Most facilities were in Massachusetts, but many were farther away. Receiver states included South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont.

Rhode Island spent substantially more, about $18.8 million, on in-state residential facilities in 2011, but those facilities also cost less per child—on average, about $33,000.

In 2010, there was a comparable ratio of in- to out-of-state spending, with $10.4 million spent on 121 kids at out-of-state facilities.

A report issued that year revealed that Rhode Island was institutionalizing children at a rate 80 percent above the national average and also was “export[ing]” children to other states at an “alarmingly high rate.” The report, which was issued by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, claimed that the lucrative revenue social service agencies receive in the per diem rates they charge states like Rhode Island was driving the demand to institutionalize children.

Sending a child or teenager to a residential treatment program out of state is more expensive because of their complex behavioral and psychological needs, said Kevin Aucoin, the deputy director of DCYF. He said a child would only be sent out of state because those needs cannot be met at a local facility. 

In recent years, the state department has reduced the number of children it sends out of state: from a high of 50 on any given day in 2010 to 36 as of this past Tuesday, according to Aucoin.

However, as the number of troubled children leaving state has dropped, the cost remains high. On an annualized basis, the current average cost per out-of-state child is about $152,000.

 Sending millions of dollars out of state

Instead of spending so much to send kids out of state, Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence, says DCYF should be channeling those funds into Rhode Island. But when he filed legislation in 2011 aimed at doing just that it died in committee after the chief justice of the Rhode Island Family Court issued a letter to General Assembly leaders opposing the measure.

“They’re sending millions of taxpayer dollars out of state under the guise that you can’t find these services here,” DaSilva said in a recent interview.

He said local social service agencies should be given the opportunity to develop the programs for which DCYF is sending kids to out-of-state facilities. “You give them the opportunity to develop a program and they will—that’s what I heard from some of the providers,” DaSilva said.

But Aucoin said the law already imposes limitations on when children are sent away. He said that an out-of-state placement happens only when there is no local program available to meet the needs of that particular child—and the law mandating that, he added, has been on the books since the 1980s.

Local provider says he was passed over

But the head of one DCYF provider says that’s just not what happens from his experience.

The official, an executive director who would speak only on the condition of anonymity since he still relies on revenue from the state, said he met with DCYF officials two years ago, informing them that he was closing down one program at his facility due to declining referrals. He said he offered to develop a new program that DCYF might need in Rhode Island.

“They basically said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’” he recalled. “Nothing has ever happened since then.”

Instead, his facility had to lay off 15 to 17 employees.

This year DCYF overhauled its placement system in a move that Aucoin suggested would continue the trend towards more in-state placements. Under the new system, there are two networks each overseen by a private agency: the Ocean State Network for Children and Families, managed by Family Service of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Care Placement Network, handled by Child and Family Services.

But the service provider who spoke with GoLocalProv said so far he personally hasn’t seen any move to boost in-state placements under the new system. And, he said the blame rests as much on DCYF as it does on Family Court, which he said often sends kids out of state even when DCYF recommends that they stay here. The ability of the courts to override DCYF is what would have changed under the DaSilva bill.

Monitoring abuse and neglect

DaSilva was inspired to submit his bill by the story of Nicholas Alahverdian, who was in the state child welfare system from the ages of 12 to 18, spending some of that time in two out-of-state facilities where he allegedly suffered abuse and neglect.

DaSilva said that it’s harder to monitor potential cases of abuse and neglect when a child resides out of state. “When a child is out of state where is that level of oversight?” DaSilva said.

At one time, DCYF relied on a private consultant, Placement Solutions, to check up on Rhode Island children who were placed out of state. The company made visits to children in nearby states once every three months. For those farther away: visits were once every six months, according to the report issued by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

The contract with Placement Solutions expired earlier this year and now DCYF personnel do the checkups themselves, Aucoin said. Children close-by—say in Massachusetts or another New England state—are now visited monthly. But those farther away still can go for as long as six months without seeing someone from Rhode Island DCYF, according to Aucoin.

But he insisted that the state’s system for monitoring abuse is robust. “The department has always been very vigilant and strong in its oversight capacity,” Aucoin said. “I believe that the licensing oversight has provided the department with the opportunity to insure the safety and well-being of children.”

Accusations of abuse and neglect out of state would be investigated by DCYF’s sister agencies in those states, Aucoin said. But, he added that DCYF has the right to send its own representative to evaluate the situation and make an independent recommendation on whether Rhode Island children should be kept at the facility—even if those children are not the direct victims of the alleged abuse or neglect at the facility.

Aucoin said he could not recall any out-of-state facilities where there was a substantiated case of abuse or neglect of a child from Rhode Island.

DCYF changes direction

Almost everyone contacted for this report by GoLocalProv said one of the most important reasons for keeping children in Rhode Island is psychological, not financial.

“I think the general rule is that if there are ways to address the needs of a child or youth at home in Rhode Island that is the way to go,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.

Only in cases where a specialized service is not available in state should a child be sent away, Bryant said.

Alahverdian told GoLocalProv that it can be traumatic for a child or teenager to be moved so far away from his family, his school, and his friends. “Everything you know—every person you know—is erased. To have that happen at a young age … it can be traumatic,” Alahverdian said.

Aucoin agreed that it’s ideal to keep kids local. He said there had been a “paradigm shift” at his agency and across the country in the past four to five years as child welfare agencies have begun to rethink the benefits of treating children at residential programs. He said the shift has been towards services that are more family and community-based.

Aucoin points to the fact that 68 percent of all children removed from their families are now in foster homes rather than residential treatment facilities as evidence that the shift has produced a real change in the system.

Experts like Bryant and Aucoin seem to have reached a consensus: the new approach is not only cheaper, it’s better for the kids.

But without a change in the law to rein in court-ordered out-of-state placements, DaSilva says there’s no guarantee that the trend towards keeping children in Rhode Island will continue. DaSilva, who will not be returning to the General Assembly next year after losing a close primary battle for the state Senate, says he still hopes to get some of his former colleagues to re-introduce the legislation in the next session.
 

 

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