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Ga. plans boost to foster care funds

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Georgia’s 2018 budget could be ready for a House vote as early as next week.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairs the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on human resources. She said they expect to wrap up deliberations today.

“We’re not on a timeline but the days are ticking off,” she said. “The desire is to get it to the Senate by late next week.”

The human resources budget funds programs for children, the elderly and others with special needs. Foster care accounts for the largest part, according to a report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Dempsey’s subcommittee spent most of the week listening to hours of testimony from representatives of both state agencies and the private providers that contract to perform some services.

“Once everybody can see the new requests, we try to prioritize,” Demp­sey said. “Human Resources is funded pretty tightly, but sometimes we’ll be allowed money that hasn’t been allocated from other state departments.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed budget contains additional funding for foster care services — including a boost to the per diem rate paid to foster families, to $24 from $15 per child in most cases. It also would raise starting salaries for child welfare caseworkers to $35,000.

But it would only apply to children placed through the Division of Family and Children Services. That brought pleas for parity from private providers during a hearing Monday.

Alison Evans with The Methodist Children’s Home in Macon said they support the increases, but leaving them out will affect their ability to recruit foster families and caseworkers.

She and other members of Together Georgia, an alliance of child and family services providers, told the subcommittee of their work and the support they provide beyond what the state funds.

“We’ve all been saying there’s a tremendous need for foster families, and we’ve been asked to partner with DFCS to meet that gap … we’re asking you to make right what was left out of the governor’s budget,” said Bob Bruder-Mattson, president and CEO of FaithBridge Foster Care.

Dempsey said Thursday that the subcommittee’s first priority is to restore cuts made during the recession, taking into account the growth in Georgia’s population.

“The challenge is balancing the dollars against who — in foster care, in the aging population — has the greatest need,” she said.

The Georgia Council on Aging is asking for an even bigger hike than the proposed $4.2 million, to pare down a waiting list of more than 9,800 seniors for home-based services.

DFCS wants a raise for Special Assistant Attorney Generals who represent children in court. They currently get $56.50 an hour compared to $142.50 an hour for SAGs in other agencies.

And Emory University officials are seeking funding for partnership programs to address behavioral health problems, including the emerging issue of autistic children aging into adulthood.

Dempsey said the stories and needs presented to the committee are often touching, but she has to focus on the big picture.

“It depends on which eyes I’m looking with,” she said. “My role is to look with the realistic eyes of how to spend money in the most appropriate way to address a need.”