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Budget Cuts Hit Talented Social Services Team

Crucial staff and money-saving strategies that have helped kids in jeopardy have been -- or are in danger of being -- eliminated.

In the 20-plus years I've been covering human services for Governing, I've never seen systems under so much pressure. Between the burgeoning demand for services and the budget cuts, it's a miracle that they've held up as well as they have. But cracks are forming, and we're hearing more and more sad stories about the damage being done as those cracks widen and deepen.

In fact, one of those sad stories revolves around Jim Beougher.

Beougher, who up until recently was director of Maine's Office of Children and Family Services, was recruited in 2004 to help the state as it embarked on an ambitious and smartly-focused effort to overhaul how it provided services to the state's children and families. The crux of reform: Push down the number of kids in congregate care and push up rates of permanency.

When I first met Beougher in Augusta, he was positively disdainful of Maine's pre-reform children and family services system. "There's one thing I've noticed, not just about child welfare bureaucracies, but about government in general," Beougher said. "It becomes focused not on the people it's supposed to serve, it becomes focused on meeting the needs of staff."

While that attitude's not exactly going to win over the troops, it is a reality worth pointing out. When systems lose sight of their true mission, bad things happen. Beougher said that when he first got to Maine, "staff placed kids wherever it was easiest to place them." If that meant a $130,000 a year congregate care facility versus a $16 a day foster home, well, that was just how business got done.

But Beougher, along with a small group of dedicated managers and front-line staff, saw just how unsustainable and damaging that practice was. So, they changed it: The state relentlessly drove down the number of kids languishing in clinically dubious and expensive congregate care, and significantly improved outcomes like shortening the amount of time kids spent in the system overall, improving rates of kinship placements, improving permanency rates, and significantly reducing reported instances of re-abuse and neglect.

Despite his success, Beougher is out. A new governor with very different ideas about what government is and ought to do has decided to take an excellent group of competent, dedicated upper-level managers and get rid of them. "They basically wiped out the institutional memory in human services," is how one Augusta insider describes it. Not only that, the governor's current budget proposal calls for eliminating the wraparound services that have been key to keeping so many kids at home and out of institutional and foster care.

As a result, having gone from one of the worst children and family services systems in the country to one of the best, Maine is moving backwards again. Those who were key to rebuilding the system are unilaterally being shown the door. Money-saving strategies for helping kids are in jeopardy of being defunded.

Beougher and his upper-level staff never let up or compromised when it came to ensuring the well-being of those served. In fact, Beougher could be prickly and impatient, and was famous for rubbing his superiors the wrong way. I think he always got a kick out of the fact that more than a couple of his bosses would have loved to fire him if not for the inconvenient fact that he was doing such a good job.

There is a bright side to all this: If anyone out there is looking for extremely smart, focused and effective public servants with experience in successfully pushing sweeping reforms in a children and family services system, Maine is in the process of putting them out on the street. The darker side, however, is that it will ultimately be the children, families and, not incidentally, the taxpayers of Maine who are going to suffer.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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