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Walworth County human services in a budget crunch

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Sept. 18, 2007, 4:27 p.m.)

Walworth County children are staying longer in foster homes, detention centers and community based living programs and it may create an $800,000 budget shortfall for the Health and Human Services Department without clever budgeting.

Department heads feel the shortfall will be averted when the books are closed at the end of the year because of tightened fiscal belts.

"We looked in every nook and cranny," for funds, said Linda Seemeyer, department director.

No programs or staff were cut, but money was taken from line items just about everywhere to support the children's division, Seemeyer said. Training and travel were cut and some vacant positions remained unfilled.

"We've tightened everything down a lot," she said, nothing the department is about $80,000 away from being back on target for an even budget. "Our ability to withstand unexpected pressures in other areas is really limited. We scrubbed every budget we had."

Dr. David Thompson, deputy director, said about $500,000 of the projected deficit is for foster care placements. The remainder is from other residential treatment placements--such as Rawhide Boys Ranch--or juvenile corrections, including juvenile detention halls.

It is unclear why, but placements in the programs are lasting longer. Thus, costs are rising, Thompson said.

"I think it reflects the severity level of the kids who come in," Thompson said. "The family situations are worse. It's more difficult to make changes that will keep them safe and allow us to get kids out of (out-of-home) care."

But the department is trying, Thompson said.

"We are looking aggressively for other alternatives to prevent out-of-home placements, and also other ways for children who are in out-of-home placements back home sooner," Thompson said.

Possible solutions are focusing on finding extended family members to care for children, working with parents to create a suitable home life and working with judges and the district attorney's office to seek alternatives before recommending costly out-of-home placements, Thompson said.

Foster care can cost between $25 and $115 per day per child, Thompson said. A correctional facility can cost between $200 and $250 per day per child.

Part of the budget deficit problem, Thompson said, was projections looking back only two years, which happened to be two of the lowest-cost years in nearly a decade.

Next year's budget will ask for about $500,000 more for the children's unit budget after considering historical trends over a seven-year period, Thompson said.

The recommended increase will not take away from other programming, Seemeyer said.

A massive restructuring to the department led by the previous administration is saving the county money by capturing more Medicaid reimbursements and having people move out of group homes and into less-restrictive community settings, Seemeyer said.

The department budget is seeking a 1.4 percent increase in tax-supported dollars, according to the proposed county budget.


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