The federal sequestration and territorial budget cuts are causing the Department of Human Services to trim services, according to its commissioner, Christopher Finch, who testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, Human Services and Veterans Affairs on Wednesday.
The testimony focused solely on the department’s programs affecting children. A second hearing will be held next week to discuss other Human Services programs.
Finch said his department expects to lose approximately $1 million due to cuts in federal spending stemming from sequestration – with the popular Head Start preschool service and the child care subsidy program taking major hits.
Finch said that Head Start, which serves 894 children in the territory and has an additional 765 on the waiting list, will lose $394,961 per year beginning September 1.
Finch said he hopes Human Services will be able to avoid cutting the number of children in the program by reducing the hours some of its centers.
He also briefed the senators on a 10-classroom Head Start building the department was planning to construct in Frederiksted. Finch said they received $2.4 million in federal funds for the project but the lowest bids for construction came in at least $2 million more than that.
He said the Department of Public Works was helping Human Services find ways to change the architectural plans and lower the construction cost. Finch also said Gov. John deJongh Jr. had pledged additional funding, but he would not say publicly how much so as not to skew the bidding process for the project.
The child care subsidy program, which is a voucher program that offers subsidized child care to low income families, is set to lose $102,100 in federal funding. Finch said the program is already underfunded, with several hundred children on a waiting list to enter the program.
The Energy Crisis Assistance Program will also lose some funding from the sequestration, though Finch did not specify how much. He said the program, which pays the electricity bills of some senior residents, likely did not have enough money to make it through the year or, if it did, it would do so “on fumes.”
He said the department was instituting a $100 per bill cap on the assistance they could provide in order to extend the life of the program.
Asked whether there was some way to avoid cuts in services, Finch replied that the only way would be for the local government to cover the shortfall in federal dollars, but he did not expect that to happen.
In a candid moment, Finch said that he had been leading the department for six years and, in that time, it had been his experience that his budget was more likely to go down than up. He said that his annual budget this year was $7 million less than what it was in 2009 and that his budget for 2014 will likely fall $9.2 million below that mark.
This, he said, has caused Human Services to encounter constant shortages of staff, material and workspace.
“Overall, in virtually every area of the department, we are working short staffed,” Finch said. “We’re missing several top management positions that we’re not even necessarily trying to hire at this point because of the financial limitations.”
Asiah Clendinen, the department’s deputy commissioner for human resources, said Human Services currently has a list of 50 “critical needs” jobs and has gotten a waiver of the hiring freeze to fill 23 of those positions.
She stressed that these opening were largely due to retirements and that none of these positions were new jobs.
“Every position we have now is critical,” she said. “This is not extra positions; it’s truly what we need. Although it’s still less than what we truly need.”
Several senators asked Finch about the condition of the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix, with Sen. Diane Capehart stating forcefully that she felt the facility out-of-date and in bad repair.
During his testimony, Finch acknowledged that the center was in bad shape and said the department had a blueprint for a modern facility that could be built in phases. However, to this point, Human Services has not been able to find funds to finance the project.
He said the facility also needed new secure vehicles to transport youth to and from the courthouse as well as additional treatment staff, officers and teachers.
Finch said these deficiencies needed to be addressed soon because YRC has seen a distinct increase in the number of youth placed at the center. He said over the last few years the facility averaged 24 residents at any given time, but currently it is housing 32. In addition, the crimes for which many of the youth are being detained are increasingly violent, Finch said.
“Of the 32 residents now in custody, 10 of them face a murder charge and 12 face weapons charges,” he said. “With these types of charges, youth will be in custody longer leading to a need to increase the therapeutic intervention.”
On a more positive note, Finch announced an initiative that could curtail the number of children in foster care being sent to off-island facilities.
Finch said that the territory’s current foster care system does not have the capability to manage children with severe behavioral issues, so these children are placed in special facilities in the states.
Finch said this practice was expensive and was not ideal for the children involved.
To combat this, Human Services is planning to train foster families in “therapeutic foster care” techniques. Finch said many foster families never receive more than rudimentary training. By boosting their skills, they will be better able to handle the territory’s foster care needs locally.
Finch said he is currently setting up a 24-hour support service for those engaged in the program and his next step will be to recruit families.
He said that budget constraints have slowed the progress of this initiative, but he is still pushing it forward.
“I feel strongly this is one of the most important improvements in services we can make,” he said. “It has the potential to improve child abuse and neglect treatment while reducing stateside residential costs as well as residential care costs overall.”
No votes were taken at the information gathering session.
In attendance were Sens. Capehart, Samuel Sanes, Craig Barshinger, Kenneth Gittens, Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, Terrence “Positive” Nelson, Clarence Payne and Tregenza Roach.
Representatives from the Department of Human Services will return to the Senate on April 18 to answer questions regarding its services for adults.