Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Social services remain a target as budget cuts loom

Photo credit: Newscom

Photo credit: Newscom

Pressure on the state budget seems to be coming from every direction. The Washington State Supreme Court has ordered Washington to fully fund K-12 education, a total that is estimated to cost at least $2 billion per two-year budget cycle. Adding to the state’s financial squeeze, investments need to be made to fund I-1351, an initiative that was passed in November and is expected to cost $1.4 billion in the next biennium.

Without any significant revenue increases in sight, legislators will have to cut somewhere. Social service agencies, which have been cut to the bone in recent sessions, remain a target.

Residential, involuntary and crisis treatment programs are all “state-only” funded programs, which makes them vulnerable to budget cuts. Some of these programs not only assist in intervention, but they also educate children, youth and their families in behavioral skills, employment training and independent living skills.

Behavioral Rehabilitation Services (BRS) agencies haven’t seen a rate increase in over 15 years. BRS is a state-funded program that provides individualized support to children and their families who experience mental, developmental, and/or behavioral difficulties that exceed the service capacity of regular foster care families. Many of the children who utilize BRS services have come from homes where they experienced or witnessed domestic violence, drug use, gang violence, sexual abuse, homelessness or overall neglect.

The Washington State Legislature mandates that a permanency plan must be developed no later than 60 days after a child is removed from their home. However, because there are 9,000 foster care children in the state of Washington and only 5,000 foster care homes, many of these children reside in residential homes for undefined periods of time and receive BRS services.

Ryther, a non-profit organization that provides behavioral health services for children and families, currently loses around $1.5 million dollars per year. That’s $120 every day, per BRS child. Lee Grogg, Executive Director at Ryther reported that the state has increased pressure to move towards permanency as opposed to residential treatment. This has resulted in a lack of unspent BRS dollars. While this has saved the state approximately $5 million, they have also closed more than 70 residential beds and cut more than 20% of funding to BRS clients. Anticipating a significant cut this legislative session, Ryther announced earlier this month that they will be closing one of their outpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs and are expecting to close more residential programs if additional revenue is not generated.

The Children’s Administration’s goal is for providers to serve children with less money and complete their treatment in less time, which has led to recent budget cuts. Since that time, more children have run away from family placements, resulting in more intensive care that child will later develop in the school, juvenile justice and mental health systems.

Research shows that foster care children are already at increased risk for school failure, teen pregnancy, homelessness, unemployment and incarceration. BRS foster care children need individualized therapeutic care, structure and stability that cannot be found in a regular home. Further cuts would continue to jeopardize their chances of developing placement stability, further contributing to the behavioral problems of foster children.

A lack of BRS funding equates to a lack of referrals, causing providers to scale back their services, raising the deficit on residential programs. The YMCA reports that only 9% of youth in Washington State receive BRS services, compared to 19% of youth in other states.

Allocating more money to behavioral rehabilitation services would ensure the safety and security of thousands of foster care kids in Washington. If we continue to cut BRS funding, we must ask ourselves, what will happen to children if there is nowhere for them to go?

By Janna Higgins, Graduate Policy Intern

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