Friday, May 03, 2013

Reinvesting Savings To Support DC’s Fragile Families

For the fiscal year 2014 budget, Children’s Law Center urges reinvestment in children and families to prevent negative outcomes and avoid more expensive interventions in the future. Changes in policies and practices mean extra savings for the District: $30 million from sending fewer children to non-public schools and about half that amount from the reduction in the number of children in foster care. But these families will still need help from DC’s child- and family-serving agencies. The savings should follow the families and their needs through reinvestment in the education, early childhood, child welfare, and mental health system.


The mayor’s office is planning to bring hundreds of students back to DC public schools (DCPS) from nonpublic placements and saving an anticipated $30 million in FY14 in tuition. While Children’s Law Center shares the hope expressed by Mayor Gray that all DC children be able to attend local schools, in our experience DC schools are already struggling to meet the current demand for special education services. Returning hundreds more children with disabilities to DCPS can only succeed if there is a major financial investment in expanding and improving DCPS’s existing special education services. Rather than such a meaningful financial investment, what is in the budget is simply a small increase to the foundation level for the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. This increase is no more than what is necessary to account for rising teacher salaries and operating costs. The proportion of the DCPS budget going to special education is unchanged.

Early Childhood 

The FY14 budget for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) includes a significant increase in funding for one of the most critical components of the education system – services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays. Research shows definitively that children’s experiences during their first years of life set the groundwork for their future success. Children who do not receive the specialized supports they need as infants and toddlers have a much harder time making up lost ground later. However, when young children do receive the supports they need, the payoffs are enormous, with long lasting and substantial gains. OSSE has recently expanded the eligibility criteria for DC’s early intervention program and the proposed FY 14 budget provides the funding necessary for this. While DC’s eligibility criteria are still more restrictive than those of 32 other states, this is an important step forward.

Child Welfare

There have been remarkable, positive reforms in DC’s child welfare system. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) Director Brenda Donald and her team have been successful in realigning the agency’s philosophy and practice to remove fewer children from home, place more children with kin, and ensure shorter stays for children who ultimately must be removed and placed into foster care. This is a positive change for children and has resulted in a lower foster care population. With this decrease, it is not surprising to see some decrease in CFSA’s budget, simply because it costs less when fewer children are in foster care. However, the savings should be reinvested in programs that meet the needs of these still fragile families. While children and families are disappearing from the District’s foster care rolls, their needs remain as visible and as striking as ever.

CFSA’s budget proposal includes several reinvestments, to:
  • add Family Assessment units to the differential response program
  • maintain recently increased subsidies for grandparent caregivers
  •  fund substance abuse treatment for families receiving in-home services
  • contract for legal services for families before their children are removed

Reinvesting in these and other prevention-focused programs will build stronger families and continue to reduce the need for out-of-home care.

Mental Health

A properly functioning mental health system provides services to ensure children reach developmental milestones, aid their academic achievements, reduce their stays in foster care, and cope with the trauma in their lives rather than repeating the cycle of violence. The money we are not investing in mental health services today is reflected in the money we spend in our special education, foster care and juvenile justice budgets.

It is a positive step that the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) budget has been increased to raise provider reimbursement rates and allow for an increase in other services. Unfortunately, the budget for DBH’s specific children’s programs is flat this year, although the current budget for these programs does not come close to meeting the needs of children with mental health problems in our city. Despite many improvements this past year DC children still have insufficient mental health services to assist them as they struggle to address problems in their families, schools, and community.

The District is seeing savings from reforms – but this money should be reinvested, following the fragile families from one program or one agency to the next. Their need for services is not going away; neither should the funding to serve them.

Judith Sandalow is the executive director of Children’s Law Center, which works to give every child in the District of Columbia a solid foundation of family, health, and education. CLC serves more than 2,000 at-risk children each year. Learn more at or review Children’s Law Center’s testimony at

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