An increase in the number of middle-class children being referred to foster care due to the opioid crisis was partially responsible for a $550,000 cost overrun for Montgomery County in 2017, legislators were told Tuesday night.
The county’s independent auditing firm, the Bonadio Group, told the County Legislature’s Budget and Finance Committee Tuesday night that costs associated with putting approximately 90 children into foster care in Montgomery County in 2017 exceeded the $1.2 million federal block grant the county gets for the program. It cost local taxpayers an additional $750,000.
Michele Russo, the director of finance for the county’s Department of Social Services, said the county budgeted for $250,000 in foster care costs above the amount of the federal grant, but there were an additional $550,000 in costs above that.
Timothy Ball, an auditor with Bonadio Group, said Montgomery County, along with many counties in New York state, saw a spike in foster care costs in 2017 partly because more middle-class children are being put into foster care due to the opioid crisis. Ball said federal funding for foster care children can be roughly broken down into two categories of children: low-income children classified as IV-E, who are paid for out of the federal block grant, and 50 percent paid for with federal money after the grant is exhausted; and non-IV-E children whose parents have income levels that are too high to qualify for public assistance. He said the local property tax levy in Montgomery County is sometimes charged as much as 100 percent of the cost of placing the non-IV E children into foster care.
“Because foster care is expensive, depending on where the kids get placed, you can get a family where four children are removed and they all have to go to institutional care because of physical or sexual abuse, and you could pay upwards of $100,000 per child per year,” Ball said. “If that child does not come through as an IV-E eligible child, if certain factors aren’t met, like the parents were making a lot of money when the child was removed, it’s all local share, and you have to pay it.”
Ball told legislators that the county should make every effort to make certain children are classified as IV-E funding eligible, which can sometimes be determined by whether Family Court judges have included the proper language in their rulings. He traced a direct line from more higher income “middle class” children being put into foster care and significant cost spikes for counties.
“Things that you can’t plan for are things like the heroin epidemic. In a county like Allegany County they had an average of like 10 kids in foster care, then they had a heroin outbreak and they had 80 kids in foster care over a three-month period, and they didn’t have the staff to handle it, and unfortunately, a lot of those kids weren’t IV-E eligible because a lot of the parents were middle-class people making decent money and just got involved in drugs,” he said.
Russo said approximately half, about 45, of the 90 children in foster care from Montgomery County in 2017 were non-IV-E. However, she said she could not break out what percentage of the $750,000 in local money was spent on the higher income family non-IV-E children Tuesday night because every child cost a different amount of money. She said only about six to eight of the 90 children cost most of the county’s local share for foster care, each costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the amount of care they required and the length of time they needed it.
Montgomery County DSS Commissioner Michael McMahon said the formula for determining which children are IV-E eligible is complex, and includes the income of the parents, the level of need and whether the proper language was included in the court order sending them to foster care. He said a rough approximation of a IV-E eligible child would be a child that is eligible for other social services benefits like SNAP food stamps or temporary assistance.
District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell asked Ball if it might be wise for the county to review the past six months of classifications to determine if any children were improperly labeled non-IV-E.
Ball said it could be.
“With foster care, even a matter of five or six days with a non-IV-E child could be a substantial amount of money for the county,” he said.
District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly asked if the county was communicating the importance of getting IV-E funding to the county’s judges.
“Are we meeting with our judges, are we having a workshop on this?” he asked.
Ball said two years ago Montgomery County did communicate the importance of using the proper language in foster care court orders to the county’s judges.
“I don’t want to say there are ‘rogue judges,’ but sometimes you’ll get a judge that just stops saying the right things in court, and I almost think that is what we had happening here, the wrong verbiage, and we fixed it,” he said.