The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services is anticipating closing offices and cutting services as the department makes budget reductions for the 2021 fiscal year due to COVID-19.
Georgia DFCS’ provides many services including: investigating child abuse, finding homes for neglected children, issuing SNAP, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits, along with education resources and afterschool programs for those in need. Several of these services, however, will have reduced funding, and 53 offices around the state are on the proposed chopping block in a proposed budget submitted to the state.
Georgia DFCS division director Tom Rawlings detailed many of these cutbacks in an email on May 20. TANF — which provides cash assistance to families in need for things like childcare — will receive large reductions.
“We have taken an approach that shifts as much of our necessary work to federal funds as possible, especially out-of-home expenses for children in foster care and assistance to parents who have adopted children from foster care,” he wrote.
DFCS applied over $45 million in unallocated TANF funds to these changes and cut TANF-funded projects, leaving a plan that will apply about half of unallocated TANF to the budget in the 2021 fiscal year and leave the other half for other needs in the future.
The local division is expecting to close 53 DFCS offices around the state. These proposed office eliminations are a part of Georgia DFCS’ 14% budget cut recommendations in response to Gov. Brian Kemp’s request that all state agencies make cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic. They based their decision on a host of factors such as utilization, customer traffic and potential impact.
Rawlings wrote that the state division is prioritizing people and services over facilities.
“We plan to cut our physical plant by 14% as well, which would mean closing some county offices and moving to a ‘hub and spoke’ system in which one office serves several counties but in which we also negotiate free or shared spaces in those other counties,” he wrote.
Several of the offices are in rural Georgia such as Irwin County, Screven County and Taliaferro County.
Fannin County commissioner chairman Stan Helton said the county’s DFCS office closure would be detrimental to the community.
“It would have a very dire impact because Fannin County is kind of a ... dichotomy — if that’s the proper term — where we have a lot of more affluent retired people that have moved here, yet there are a lot of folks that are local [and] that have been here [and] this is their home and they struggle economically,” he said.
Fannin County’s DFCS office serves four towns at least 90 miles north of Atlanta: McCaysville, Mineral Bluff, Blue Ridge and Morganton. All cities have less than 1,500 residents, and poverty rates in the counties is 13.5%.
If communities lose their local office, residents can use Georgia Gateway’s portal online, and DFCS officials said they’d be able to serve those in need virtually or via telephone. Helton, however, said internet and transportation for in-person services can be difficult to access in rural areas.
If someone in Fannin County cannot drive themselves to a DFCS office, they may use other transportation means. The nonprofit organization North Georgia Community Action, Inc. provides the Mountain Area Transportation System (MATS) within Gilmer, Pickens, Gordon and Fannin counties, but there are no large transit agencies available in that area.
“We’re a rural county with a lot of mountain county roads, and just the physical move of going from Blue Ridge to Ellijay — which is 16 miles — that may not seem like much, [but a] 32 mile round trip added to what could be a very remote trip from the county is quite a bar to raise,” Helton said. “And others feel eliminating that one-on-one, face-to-face contact with these people would have, no question, a very negative impact.”
These closures will not happen overnight, as the division assumes it will take four months to close an office, and the closures may be further modified during budget reviews. Regardless of outcome, officials from DFCS said services will still be provided to all 159 counties.
Georgia DFCS also asked its employees to give up about two days a month in unpaid furlough, and they have been told that they’d likely see a minimum of 24 furlough days. The division’s top 250 highest paid employees may also expect additional furloughs.
“Furloughs allow us to maintain the investment we have made in creating a well trained workforce full of folks we already know we can rely on,” Rawlings wrote in regard to the expected furloughs. “Furloughs also offer us the opportunity to preserve employee morale to the greatest extent possible and encourage a spirit of shared sacrifice, both of which are very important to a child welfare and human services workforce.”
A cut to providers and the child abuse registry
Providers are also bracing for a financial blow. Group homes are taking a 5% rate reduction, and the division’s foster care education project and their state Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) will also see significant reductions.
“We will work with them and the philanthropic community to help support those providers to the extent possible until the economy recovers,” Rawlings wrote.
The Child Abuse Registry (CAR) may also be eliminated or suspended in 2021, as Rawlings said it costs the agency over $1 million plus additional monies for special assistant attorneys generals and staff time.
The CAR requires DFCS to “create and maintain a registry of all substantiated cases of abuse and neglect that occur on or after July 1, 2016.” This registry would provide an efficient way of sharing child abuse information with other states and serve as a database to store and maintain child abuse reports.
“I’m happy to walk you through our thinking on this recommendation, as this situation guides us to focus on the core mission of this agency, the CAR does not fit into that mission,” Rawlings wrote to officials.
In total, the Georgia DFCS is looking to cut $93.2 million from its 2021 fiscal year budget starting July 1, 2020.