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Utah wants to help more kids at home and reduce foster care placements

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SALT LAKE CITY — Fewer Utah children would be placed in foster homes under an ongoing effort to strengthen in-home services provided by the Division of Child and Family Services, a sought-after change in the state's care of children.

A state legislative audit in 2011 revealed a 38 percent increase in Utah foster care placements during the previous decade. The audit also showed that the number of families that received in-home support that enabled children to stay in their homes decreased by 40 percent over the same time period.

Those troubling numbers prompted a change in approach.

DCFS director Brent Platt Wednesday came before the state's Child Welfare Legislative Oversight panel to tell lawmakers that the state is shifting some resources and developing tools to identify the best services for children who can safely remain in their own homes.

Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, chairwoman of the panel, said the approach is encouraging.

"One of our goals as a Legislature is to keep families together whenever possible," she said.

During fiscal year 2011, 1,926 children entered the foster care system in Utah, according to DCFS figures.

The use of in-home services can result in better outcomes for children and are less expensive than removing a child from their home and into foster care. But the change means caseworkers will need to make more home visits, which could require a change in the way DCFS is funded, Platt said.

Pulling fewer children out of homes "takes partnerships with communities. We as a division don't magically create the services these kids will need," Platt said.

While the 2011 audit showed more reliance on out-of-home foster care placements, it also spotlighted that funding for in-home services had decreased over a five-year period. Those services are fully funded by the state's General Fund while out-of-home placements are funded with state and federal dollars.

The division plans to seek a federal waiver to give it greater flexibility with funds, Platt said, allowing it to enhance at-home programs.

Platt also reported that the division has reduced its reliance on "congregate care" in group homes in the Salt Lake Valley and northern Utah, DCFS's largest regions.

"These are the least desirable placements. We only want to use these placements when there is a dire need," Platt said.

While in-home placement provides better outcomes for children, it is unsafe for some children to remain in their own homes. That means the state must have trained foster parents willing to accept new placements.

For example, the division has experienced an uptick in the number of children in the Cache Valley entering care due to more aggressive enforcement of drug offenses by law enforcement, Platt said. Those activities have resulted in 25 new placements in recent months.

The low basic financial reimbursement rate may discourage some people from the 24-hour, seven days a week commitment that foster care requires, national advocates say. A 2007 report said inadequate foster care rates "negatively affect foster parent recruitment and retention."

Utah's daily reimbursement rates range from $14.68 a day to $27.87. Although the state funds some supplemental services and items, most families end up paying children's care out of pocket, said Happie Larson, a licensed foster parent in Davis County.

"The reality is, people don't do it for money," Platt said. "These are people who want to help children, to give back to their communities."

Larson, who with her husband, Richard, have adopted 15 children they have fostered, agreed.

"Even if they didn't give me a single dollar a day, I'd still do it," Larson said. She was a foster child herself.

"You want to give them a chance at a typical life and you're trying to do that on $15 a day?" Larson said. "We spend more to kennel a dog than to care for a child. What is the message that sends to a child?"

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com