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Cash-strapped DES turns down millions in federal funds

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Cash-strapped DES turns down millions in federal funds

CREATED Feb 4, 2013

Reporter: Maggie Vespa

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Per capita, Arizona's foster care crisis is the worst in the country.

The state says it can't afford to care for our kids, and 9OYS has brought you the heartbreaking stories to prove it.

So how is it that Arizona's own Department of Economic Services can turn down millions in federal funds aimed at lightening the load of our overflowing foster system?

"I miss my family.  I miss my family," said one mother.

For the parents making these public pleas, the problem was personal and paralyzing.

"I don't know how they're doing, or if they're worried.  I don't like them to worry," said another.

Following a large-scale shut down of visitation and other programs in December... Arizona's Child Protective Services, a division of DES, admitted a historic high of kids entering foster care had blown through their budget, leaving the agency $35 million in the hole.

Phoenix quickly forked over extra funds.

But catching up could take years.

Still, fast forward a few weeks, it seems these beggers are becoming pretty choosey.

"This is not a very easy decision," said Veronica Bossack, assistant director of Youth & Family Services at DES.

Monday via phone, directors admitted last month, they turned down $11.5 million over five years from the US Foster Care Fund.

"It would be a great tool down the road, but now is, like I said, we're in a different place.  We have a lot of children in care," she said.

The federal funding is part of a six-state research program.

The goal?  Placing kids at risk of aging out of foster care in permanent homes.

DES directors say the requirements attached to the earmarked dollars take up too much man power and time.

"We are also not able to implement other things and strategies that we have found useful in other parts of the state, for example equalizing caseloads," said Stacy Reinstein, Deputy Child Administrator at DES.

But others say time is also a key concern for kids in foster care.

"Any point in time in foster care is not good for kids," said Susie Huhn, CEO of Casa de Los Ninos.

She says while the sacrifice is disappointing, she's glad to see the agency is finally acknowledging its current crisis.

"Case workers are handling many more cases than they safely should," she said.  "That endangers kids every day, but it also endangers a workforce."

DES directors turned down the grant money a year and a half into the program.

They say it's not clear yet when the funds will stop coming in.

Directors say only programs put in place through the grant will be affected.

To date, the bulk of that work surrounded placing youth advocates with a test group of roughly 60 kids in Maricopa and Pinal counties.

But the results of this research could have benefited kids across the state.