One program ends, another one starts: is it progress for kids, or just random change?
In August, I reported on a pilot project in Michigan that reduced caseloads for Child Protective Services and helped families. Despite impressive results, the funding for that project ran out at the end of September.
Eleven service agencies in Grand Rapids, Flint and metro Detroit received funding under the Prevention Pilot Project. At the time I reported my story, a number of those agencies were still hoping to find new funds to help continue the work they'd been doing.
Yesterday, I called to check in with one of the agencies: Family Futures in Grand Rapids. About a fifth of the budget for Family Futures' Healthy Start program came from the prevention pilot. Family Futures still hasn't managed to find replacement funds, which means it had to let five workers go.
"That's always the hard part for me," says Sue Toman, the chief operating officer at Family Futures. "Those are trained workers."
Toman says these were people who worked directly with families. Even if new funding became available now, Family Futures would have to train new social workers to replace them.
The idea behind the Prevention Pilot Project was to get training and counseling for families that were at risk of running into the foster care system. Money came from the federal government in the form of a grant. And the project was for families that may have already gotten a visit from Child Protective Services, but that were generally in less-extreme situations. The counseling and training was designed to keep problems from escalating.
An internal report by the state's Children's Trust Fund found that 97 percent of the families enrolled in the project didn't get another visit from CPS, and their children did not end up in foster care. The cost of the program was estimated to be about $10 per day, per family. In comparison, foster care costs about $57 per day, per child.
"We like a lot of what we're seeing here," Department of Human Services spokesman Dave Akerly told me in August.
But the Prevention Pilot Project was funded with a federal grant. When the grant expired, so did the money.
Now, agencies like Family Futures are simply helping fewer people.
Sue Toman estimates about 150 fewer families will get help this year, compared to last year. She says Family Futures is still doing prevention work for families that need it, but the waiting list has gotten longer. Now, staff have to basically do a form of triage. Families in the most extreme circumstances get help first.
Meanwhile, yesterday the Michigan Department of Human Services announced it's gotten a waiver from the federal government to spend some of its foster care money to keep kids at home with their families. As Michigan Radio reported yesterday on its website, this new program is targeted at kids under the age of five. It's also not really focused on prevention. The new waiver allows agencies to intervene and help families where the kids were already supposed to be on their way to foster care. The Prevention Pilot Project was designed to keep things from going that far in the first place.
The new waiver is also targeted at different communities. This time, money will go to three counties: Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Macomb. None of those counties received money under the Prevention Pilot Project. DHS hasn't announced how much money will go into the new program. Spokesman Dave Akerly told me that's one of the details still being sorted out before the program officially launches next August.
If all of this just sounds kind of confusing, I have to admit I'm right there with you.
You've got various funding streams feeding various projects in various counties, and it all changes every few years. It all can seem a bit haphazard.
The new waiver at DHS is expected to last five years. The Prevention Pilot Project lasted two years, and after some reworking, it could come back again next year as a state-wide program.
The hope is that all of these ever-changing programs and funding streams are leading somewhere - that it's all part of a process of experimentation to get the best results for kids while limiting wasteful spending.
It's still not clear to me whether that's actually the case. But it is the hope.