Is DCF really stretched thin?
Agency’s budget has declined, but so has its caseload
Many of the stories covering the recent tragedies on the watch of the Department of Children and Families tend to portray an agency stretched thin by budget cuts over the last several years. Yet a close look at the available data suggests the lower budget for the agency since 2009 corresponds closely with a drop in the overall caseload.
What that means is that the relative dollars to spread over current DCF cases have actually continued to increase, even as raw budget figures have dropped in some years. The decrease in caseload is rarely mentioned in stories that tend to focus instead on raw budget figures or staffing levels, citing the decrease of 47 managers and 124 social workers, or other similar statistics.
Following a similar approach, DCF fronts a chart on their homepage that makes it appear their budget suffered significant cuts between 2009 and 2012, perhaps as much as half (based on visual inspection).
The chart makes the proposed 2015 budget look like a major increase, restoring much-needed funds to a starving agency and bringing total dollars back close to the 2009 peak. In reacting to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed 2015 budget, some observers have taken a similar tack, comparing proposed funding levels to the 2009 high. Though the chart above makes the proposed funding increase look substantial, the apparently large increase is an artifact of a well known gimmick employed to make changes appear larger than they are by compressing the y-axis. The increase shown is actually 5.1 percent, potentially significant, to be sure, but not the sea change suggested by the scale of the bars in the chart.
DCF also reports other caseload declines. “Since June 2009,” the agency says, “there have been significant declines in consumers (-24 percent), children (-26 percent), children in placement (-17 percent), and adults (-21 percent).” The timing of the downward trend in the DCF budget closely tracks the decreasing caseload, which peaked in 2009 (the same year the DCF budget peaked) and has been falling ever since.
Over the same time period, the DCF budget fell 9.2 percent, a relatively slower pace than the change in the caseload. Putting the two numbers together reveals the DCF budget relative to their caseload actually increased steadily between 2009 and 2013. Put another way, the “dollars per case” has been steadily increasing.
It’s impossible to say for sure whether this trend will continue in 2014 and 2015 because official data on caseloads has not yet been made available. The raw dollars flowing to DCF look set to increase in 2015, although the final amount of the increase is not yet clear.
The Boston Globe has reported that the governor’s proposed budget will allow for a reduction of the caseload per social worker from an average of 18 to a more manageable 15. At the same time, however, there is some indication caseloads may be bouncing back up. The SEIU 509, representing social workers, has said the number of open cases climbed 16 percent between 2013 and 2014, though the official numbers do not appear to be available. If such an increase is underway, this increased number of cases could challenge the goal of changing the staffing-to-case ratio.It may be that even this relatively higher budget amount is too low to keep up with the demands placed on DCF by their consumers and to deploy the kinds of modern technology that appear to be lacking within the agency. But it’s worth exploring how DCF’s resources are being used, as relatively more dollars are being spread over fewer cases than just a few years ago. It’s also possible that previous funding for the agency was too low, so a much larger adjustment is now needed to realign resources to the demands of running a modern agency effectively. But one thing is clear: Simply pointing to 2009 funding levels as a desired target for funding obscures the fact that caseloads have been steadily declining even with lower funding.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group, which is owned by MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth.