California’s Budget Act of 2011 includes a major shift or “realignment” of state program responsibilities and revenues to local governments (primarily counties). In total, the realignment plan provides $6.3 billion to local governments to fund various criminal justice, mental health, and social services programs in 2011–12. It also provides ongoing funds for these programs annually thereafter. Child welfare is among the programs “realigned.”
Within the past few months, a small group of organizations and advocates, including NCYL, have formed an ad hoc workgroup to help ensure that the children and families served by the child welfare system are not lost in the shuffle of realignment. The group includes Children Now, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, Public Counsel, the John Burton Foundation, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Legal Services of Northern California.
The group has identified a number of issues to focus on as part of their goal of ensuring that realignment will improve, not diminish, services to children and families. These key issues include:
- What child welfare programs will the state Department of Social Services (DSS) continue to operate or provide?
- Given new authority and flexibility to eliminate or add programs or services, what steps are being taken to ensure counties’ decisions do not result in loss of federal matching funds?
- What programs or services are at risk of being eliminated by counties because they are not mandated?
- What safeguards can be put into place to ensure that the state continues to exercise the oversight required under federal and state law?
- How will realignment impact the counties in which waivers (permission to use federal funds more flexibly to test innovative approaches to providing child welfare services) have been granted?
- What, if any, changes are being considered in the allocation of funds among the counties?
The group is developing recommendations in several areas, with a concentration on fiscal and oversight issues. After realignment, counties will have greater flexibility to encourage innovation. Group members want to ensure that flexibility does not mean that certain programs are not operated at an adequate level and federal mandates are ignored, as the Legislative Analyst warned could happen.
The group is also evaluating the merits of reforms suggested by others. For example, the Legislative Analyst suggested that the Legislature consider changes in the current allocation formula for child welfare services – one that is based on social worker caseload standards established in 1984.
Workgroup members recently put on a Webinar to provide others in the child welfare community with the basic information about realignment. They also took their concerns and ideas for reform to the federal level at the Congressional Caucus on Foster Care meeting in Los Angeles on February 25. In addition, the group is developing recommendations to submit to the California Department of Social Services (DSS) and the California legislature.