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Child Care: Dollars Go Unspent as Help Is Cut

Times Staff Writer

Millions of dollars available for public services to children throughout Los Angeles County are going unspent, while key prevention and early intervention programs are being slashed, a detailed, two-year study by a coalition of child advocates has found.

The public programs--which include welfare payments, child abuse services, the juvenile court system and health services--are also fragmented and increasingly unable to meet soaring needs, the study found.

The complex, 200-page study and recommendations, which will be presented to the Children’s Services Commission today and later to the Board of Supervisors, is the work of a 10-member research committee of the Children’s Roundtable, a group of more than 50 administrators from public and private agencies and volunteer leaders of civic organizations concerned with children.

$2 Billion on Children

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Focusing on the five-year period ending in fiscal 1984-85 (the most recent year for which figures were available), the group found that the county spends nearly $2 billion a year on children, or nearly a third of the total budget; that 81% of the money comes from federal and state sources; and that it is used for a host of uncoordinated programs spread through 17 agencies.

“We are trying to say, ‘Look at this: a third of all the money passing through this county goes to children, and one out of 30 children in the U.S. is in this county,’ ” said Roundtable Chairwoman Celeste Kaplan. “Yet the county has no system for seeing what it’s doing. It looks at things by department; we looked at ‘the children’s budget’ as a whole.”

It is a system that served more than 388,000 poor children, 39,000 abused and neglected children and 32,000 youngsters in trouble with the law.

The exhaustive study, the first of its kind, reveals a number of troubling surprises and indicates steps that might improve life for Los Angeles County’s more than 2 million children, Kaplan said.

Among the findings of the study, which was headed by Jacquelyn McCroskey of USC’s School of Social Work and Tom David of UCLA’s School of Social Welfare:

- The county has failed to use millions of dollars available for services to children over the last five years, particularly in the areas of child care and health services. For example, state allocation for the county’s Child Development Program--child-care services for abused and neglected children administered by the county Department of Public Social Services--dropped by nearly $1 million. Unexpended funds are redistributed to other counties.

Likewise, in fiscal 1984-85, nearly $2 million in child-care funds available to women enrolled in job training went unused, the report says. And nearly $250,000 earmarked for child health exams and immunizations was not spent.

(The report does not explore the various, sometimes legitimate, reasons for unspent funds, and county department chiefs could not be reached for comment over the weekend).

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- Professional appointments of lawyers and expert witnesses in the the juvenile Dependency and Delinquency Courts cost nearly $7 million in the most recent year the group studied, more than the cost of the court operation itself.

“County government should consider whether such a large expenditure for professional appointments is necessary, and whether there are possible, less costly alternatives, such as expansion of the public defenders office,” the report suggests.

- Children’s services aimed at prevention or early intervention, especially in the areas of health and mental health, have been cut back or inadequately funded, while expenditures have mounted for much more costly services needed at a later point, often as a consequence of these cuts.

Protective Services

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For example, in the area of children’s protective services, the lack of funding for comprehensive in-home services (such as counseling or homemaker aides) has tended to increase the number of children who must be placed with foster parents or in group homes.

- Welfare cuts have pushed many families further into poverty. The maximum Aid to Families with Dependent Children grant for a family of three in 1980 was $473 a month, 9% below the federally calculated poverty level; five years later, the actual dollar figure had risen to $555 a month, but was 21% below the poverty line.

- Since 1980, children’s services have eroded across the board. While the overall budget rose 29%, it actually declined slightly when adjusted for inflation. Four areas--children’s income support programs, child health services, mental health services and child care--all suffered losses in revenue.

- The remaining three areas examined by the report--the juvenile justice system, children’s protective services, and children’s recreational and cultural programs--received increased funding, which in most cases was almost immediately swallowed up by increased demands and caseloads.

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For example, funding for direct protective services such as emergency response and crisis intervention in suspected child abuse situations rose 24% over the period of the study, while accepted referrals rose 37% and dependency investigations 120%. Funding for Dependency Court operations rose 65% but the number of cases increased by 100%.

The Roundtable group is now making seven general policy recommendations that will require approval by the Board of Supervisors and numerous more detailed recommendations.

It wants further study of lost state and federal funds. It urges more cooperation between departments that serve the same children.

It suggests budgeting by program rather than merely by department, underlines the county’s need to develop an information system that can gather the data necessary for good planning and calls for the development of a planning system that would include both public and private agencies.

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The report asks the county to reevaluate its priorities to emphasize prevention and early intervention, and to give special attention to what it calls the long-neglected area of child care. It urges the supervisors to set up a special child-care task force as well as an interdepartmental county child-care management committee to work at improving public child-care programs.

“Though small in numbers, the child-care services provided by county government for targeted families are critically important--because these are the children who are most at risk of long-term problems through abuse, neglect or poverty,” the report says. “Apparently our county government has not understood and valued the contribution its child-care programs could make . . . (but has viewed them) either as relatively unimportant or as appendages to adult employment programs.”


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