One of the three homes in Montana run by nonprofit organizations that help young moms and their kids stay out of the state’s foster care system closed last week. It was in Billings.
Budget cuts imposed by the state Legislature last year mean the state health department is eliminating more than $1.5 million in funding* for these kinds of organizations, sometimes referred to as "second chance homes."
"I felt that I had this reputation of kind of a rebellious troubled kid when I was in the foster care system and when I was a ward of the state," says Creeana Aviles.
When Aviles was 15 she got pregnant while living in foster care and was placed into one of these therapeutic homes, The Florence Crittenton Home in Helena.
Here, Aviles watched other new mothers change their kids' diapers, play with their kids, and learn how to give them a bath. Without this, Aviles says she doesn't know if she'd still have her son.
"Because I don’t know that I would have those skills that I learned here. I was able to get a job afterwards and support myself and live on my own. Just everyday things, you know, cooking, cleaning, taking care of your kid, you get to be submersed in it every single day helping other girls with their kids. I don’t know if I would have been able to keep him, or wanted to, without those skills. And I’m grateful every day, because he is truly amazing," Aviles says.
Aviles lived at Florence Crittenton 11 years ago. She says she’s now a manager at a bank, and her son is in middle school.
"As far as who is paying for the program, I can’t say who I think should be paying for it. I can tell you that there are going to be a lot more mothers and babies out there on the street without this program. And who does the responsibility for paying for them and caring for them fall on?"
Health care is one of Montana government’s biggest expenses. So when it came time to cut the state’s budget last year because of a shortfall in revenues and an expensive fire season, the Department of Public Health and Human Services had more funding pulled than any other state agency.
That has some healthcare organizations searching for new sources of funding to replace what the state is now cutting. The people they help often care can’t afford care the non-profits provide themselves.
Aaron Wernham is Chief Executive Officer for the Montana Healthcare Foundation.
"We’re starting to get a few more calls from organizations wondering if there is any resource that we have that could help make up the difference between money that has been cut or money, or that they anticipate will be cut. That’s really not the role that a private foundation like us can play," Warnham says.
Other private charitable foundations are also seeing their requests for grant funding rise since the state cut its Medicaid budget.
More than $110 million of state and federal funding to Montana’s health department was cut over the last year.
Wernham says his organization spends $5 to $7 million a year in the state, and even with all the other foundations that give in this area, he says there isn’t enough to make up cut in government spending.
The Health Care Foundation does currently provide some grant funding to the Florence Crittenton Home in Helena.
Barbara Burton, the home’s executive director says they started restructuring how it was funded before the state budget fell out of balance in 2017.
It uses money from the state and federal governments as well as individual private donors and larger charitable foundations. Last month, it held its yearly auction.
Burton says her organization has also shifted its work to include more treatment for substance use disorders. She says this widened the funnel of funding sources, and also its clientele.
"What we have to do, if we really are in the business of serving our mission, is figure out how to provide those services in a way that reaches the most people at the most reasonable cost," she says. " Is that going to be a government funding issue or is it going to be some that we solely rely on private donations for? Either way, if we want to continue to fulfill our mission, that is something we are going to have to figure out."
While Florence Crittenton seems to have avoided some of the financial troubles other Medicaid funded organizations have faced in recent months, Burton says the cut in public funding is a discouraging trend.
"While I feel somewhat optimistic about where we’re headed as an organization, I don't necessarily feel as optimistic as where we’re headed as a society in order to meet those needs of those clients who truly need that support. It scares me, frankly, to see the lack of potential resources coming down the pike for those families and what the long term repercussions of that might be."
As Montana’s foster care system struggles to keep up with rising caseloads, organizations like Florence Crittenton try to interrupt what can become a cycle of families ending up as wards of the state.
Sarah Corbally is an attorney in Helena and previously served as head of Montana’s child and family services division. She’s also on the board of Florence Crittenton.
"Removal of a child from their birth parent, no matter what the situation, is traumatic, and it has lifelong implications," Corbally says. "So, I think where you have a model where you place the entire family and you provide structure and you provide intervention and you provide services — and you never have a child who experiences the trauma of not being in the home where they've always been, or not being cared for by the parent that they have been since birth — it’s easy to see positive outcomes."
Instead of separating parents and children, the idea is to try to provide an alternative to foster care, a therapy for the entire family.
There are roughly 4,000 kids in foster care in Montana. That number increased by more than 400 last year.
*CORRECTION: The original broadcast of this story stated that the state health department is eilimating more than $2.5 million in funding for Second Chance Home organizations. That is not correct. The state health department is eliminating $1.5 million in funds to these organizations. MTPR regrets the error.