Why Pa. budget crisis has been terrible for vulnerable children

    The Pa. state capitol in Harrisburg (File)

    The Pa. state capitol in Harrisburg (File)

    There’s no doubt that the drawn-out budget spat between House Republicans and Gov. Wolf has harmed kids.

    The Pennsylvania budget process has been delayed since July. First House Republicans passed a budget, which the governor vetoed and sent back to the legislature. After several rounds of negotiations — including an unsuccessful suit that challenged the withholding of child welfare funds — the governor blue-lined some funding in December but vetoed line items for the state’s public universities, the Department of Corrections, and other departments. The budget has finally become law as of March 27, putting an end to this fiasco.

    While the protracted budget process has dangerous impacts on a variety of areas, including the state’s primary education system, its worst impacts are on children at risk of abuse. Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the only state to cut off child welfare funding during a budget crisis this year. Even Illinois — also lacking an on-time budget — ensured child welfare funding was maintained.

    “The only other state that was in this quagmire was Illinois, and they had a consent decree to put child welfare as an outlier,” said Bernadette Bianchi, executive director of Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family Services, a statewide association of child welfare service providers. “Other colleagues were really appalled.”

    Pennsylvania’s situation is an absolute disgrace, and our politicians need to be held accountable for it. While House Republicans and Wolf played political football with the budget for months, the lack of funding for child welfare services will harm children for the rest of their lives.

    The state withheld $1.7 billion allocated for children, youth, and family services from July to December. These five months of nonpayment wreaked havoc with the finances of nonprofit child welfare providers that are on the front lines of protecting children from abuse.

    These organizations are still reeling from the fallout. During this period, agencies first made as many cuts as they could. They furloughed workers. They cut expenses. Some dipped into operating reserves and endowments, and took out loans. The state will not reimburse accrued or lost interest, even though our elected officials were the sole cause of the delay.

    Inevitably these organizations had to cut back on preventive services, such those that support parents and family unity. Destabilizing kids’ lives ultimately puts more children at risk of abuse. It simply does not make sense.

    Just ask Francis Carney, the executive director of United Communities Southeast Philadelphia, a local social service organization providing a variety of children’s programs to low-income families. Per the organization’s 2015 990, about 85 percent of its funding came from government sources so the budget crisis hit hard.

    “During November and December it was necessary to implement an across-the-board wage reduction. Everybody in the agency had a reduction ranging from 5 to 40 percent. That was a very difficult decision to have to make, but it was the one way that we could keep our agency operating,” said Carney.

    And even though the budget crisis is over, Carney says that it has made his employees think twice about staying in the child welfare field.

    “I sense that more people are more likely to be looking for opportunities outside of social service agencies that are so dependent on government funding,” Carney said.

    Adding to the troubles are the set of laws passed after the Penn State Sandusky debacle that changed the way child abuse is defined and reported. These laws are positive changes and help protect children, but just as child abuse reports increased across the state, service providers were left ill-equipped to respond. Capacity is a critical problem.

    “Releasing the funds is putting a Band-Aid on a problem that’s not quite sticking on both sides. It’s a very tentative, very temporary fix,” said Deborah Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

    None of our politicians drew a line and said that it is unacceptable to tinker with the budget while starving the nonprofits that help keep kids safe. There are serious consequences for this inaction.

    “There’s a lot of long-term ramifications,” Bianchi said. “The biggest one is a lack of confidence and trust in our elected leadership across the board. No one valued kids enough and said, ‘Absolutely, these services needed to be funded.’ People in our field really felt devalued, and it’s painful to pick up the pieces.”

    The “pieces” being picked up here are human beings — children. This situation cannot continue.  Contact your state representative and Gov. Wolf and demand they put kids first by passing a 2017 budget on-time and that fully funds child abuse services for kids.

    Our children are more than a budget line, and it’s time our politicians acted like it.

    Samantha Waxman is a master’s student in social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. She covers child welfare issues in association with the School of Social Policy & Practice’s Penn Top Ten initiative, and tweets about policy at @waxmansd.

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