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U.S. officials are giving the state Department of Children's Services more leeway in spending money intended for foster children — to keep children out of foster care.

Until now, DCS has had to spend approximately $40 million in annual federal dollars, known as federal Title IV-E funds, to pay foster parents and provide services to kids who have already been taken from their families and placed into state custody.

Beginning next October, the agency will be able to use those funds to help keep kids home with their own families. The agency will be able to buy emergency food, help with housing or provide more intensive help that could include counselors going to a home several times each week.

The change comes as the federal government has begun to give more state child welfare systems such "waivers" to spend grants on a wider variety of interventions designed to keep kids safely out of the foster care system. In Tennessee, about 7,300 kids are in foster care.

"The waiver represents a real opportunity for Tennessee as we continue to work to keep our kids safe, make them healthy and get them back on track," said DCS Commissioner Jim Henry. "It also demonstrates that DCS is committed to finding innovative, effective solutions to help keep families together."

As part of the new federal waiver, DCS expects to receive up to $245 million from the federal government over five years to spend on both foster care and families at risk for having children removed from the home.

Rob Johnson, a spokesman for DCS, said the grant keeps the funding levels about the same as DCS has typically been getting. Johnson said DCS won't be cutting back on funds for foster kids.

"The waiver doesn't represent a decrease in money available to foster children," he said. "It gives us more flexibility to use those dollars in other ways that produce good outcomes for kids."

Tennessee is one of seven states, plus the District of Columbia, selected this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to take part in a federal pilot project that is changing the way child welfare systems are funded.

The other states are Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New York and Rhode Island. Last year, nine states received the waiver: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

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