Should We Wear Blue or Sing the Blues to Support Abused and Neglected Children?

A row of legs wearing blue jeans

Can Governor Walker offer more than blue clothes to child abuse victims?

Governor Walker recently declared April to be Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month, and he encouraged all Wisconsin citizens to “Wear Blue to Work” on April 18 to promote awareness of child abuse prevention. I have nothing against this kind of symbolic gesture; I think “awareness days” sometimes play a useful role in promoting increased public understanding or appreciation of issues like child abuse. However, I wish we had more to applaud than the symbolism.

In particular, I wish that this Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and Awareness Month was a time to celebrate an increase in funding of abuse and neglect prevention in the state budget, rather than a time when counties are confronted with shrinking support for their efforts to protect children.

In Wisconsin, child abuse and neglect prevention services are primarily the responsibility of county human service departments (with the exception of Milwaukee County, where the state administers the Child Protective Services program). Unfortunately, the 2013-15 budget bill freezes all the major sources of state funding for county-level child protective services. Those frozen appropriations, coupled with the state’s tight controls on local property taxes, mean that cost increases will continue to undercut the ability of counties to fulfill their obligations.

To be fair, the state budget does contain a few small, but positive improvements in the general area of child welfare, such as a 2.5% per year increase in foster care reimbursement rates. Although that is a welcome development, it will nonetheless leave Wisconsin near the bottom among the states in reimbursing foster families.

The disappointing budget bill is just the start of the bad news for counties and for kids in need of protection and services; federal budget cuts make the situation considerably worse. The major source of federal support for abuse and neglect prevention services is the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and federal officials recently informed states that their SSBG funding for the second half of the current federal fiscal year (April through September) would be cut by 10.2%, to achieve a 5.1% cut for the full year.

The SSBG cut will cost Wisconsin close to $1.6 million over that six-month period, and the likely continuation of those cuts in federal fiscal year 2014 and beyond could reduce our state’s SSBG funding by nearly $3 million more over the rest of the 2013-15 biennium. The funding for child protective services will also be reduced by federal cuts in two somewhat smaller sources of state and local aid: Child Welfare Services, and the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program.

I am guardedly optimistic that state lawmakers will find a way to move money around to protect Milwaukee Child Welfare from the cuts in federal funding. However, based on past experience, I am not optimistic that they will protect child welfare services in the rest of the state from the adverse consequences of federal cuts, coupled with state aid that isn’t keeping up with inflation and state-imposed caps on property taxes.

I confess that on April 18th I neglected to heed the Governor’s recommendation to wear blue, but I’m doing my part by singing the blues – as long as state and federal policymakers aren’t backing up their supportive rhetoric with the fiscal support necessary to protect vulnerable children from abuse and neglect.

For more, go to www.wisconsinbudgetproject.org

Photo by Chris RubberDragon released under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license.