By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 10:30 PM
In the 1990s, Fairfax County experienced a surge in the number of foster care cases, mirroring a national increase. Yet the county's budget was stretched thin, and busy social workers and other county employees had little time to navigate a maze of external government programs from which certain clients could benefit.
Facing an overwhelming caseload, the county teamed up with Virginia Tech to launch a pilot program that checked whether a child was eligible for federal and state funding.
"It was tough for [social workers] to have these responsibilities and work with the families," said Melony A. Price-Rhodes, a principal investigator and the program's director with Virginia Tech.
Since then, the program, which officials say is the first and most extensive of its kind in the United States, has saved Fairfax millions of dollars. It has been a model for similar programs in Hawaii and California.
The annual contract, valued at about $500,000, saved Fairfax $4.63 million in fiscal 2010, county officials said ¿ for every $1 the county spent on the program, it got back $8.
"The money that the program is able to bring to the county is very important, especially in these economic times," said Shanise Allen, a management analyst who serves as a liaison between the reimbursement unit and the county department of family services.
Fairfax drew on the expertise of the unit's seven members, all faculty researchers from the university's Institute for Policy and Governance, to maximize the amount recouped.
"We really benefit from their knowledge and them being able to stay on top of screening to determine eligibility," Allen said.
The unit reviews cases to identify and secure benefits for which a particular child qualifies. One task is to locate the parents and investigate whether a child-support petition can be filed.
"Even though that child is in foster care, [the parents] are still fiscally responsible," Price-Rhodes said.
The unit checks eligibility for Virginia Medicaid, a parent's Social Security benefits, parental death benefits, and disability benefits from the parents or for the child. It also applies for federal funding to reimburse the county for room and board and other expenses.
Officials say that the foster care system can be costly because of the special services required. Children are often removed from dysfunctional homes and have experienced trauma requiring medical and mental health services.
The program's success has prompted other states to adopt similar programs. In Hawaii, the state Department of Human Services teamed with the University of Hawaii.
Part of the Fairfax program's success lies in its speed. Each member of the team specializes in locating a specific funding source.
"This is one of the first and only organizations that works in such real time," Price-Rhodes said. "You're not putting out a report today for something that happened six months ago."
Advances in technology have helped create a more efficient process. When tracking down a parent for child support, staffers can sometimes rely on a "good old Google search," Price-Rhodes said.
Despite the unit's success, Fairfax's attempts to recover funds have run into trouble. In 2007, Virginia was required to refund the federal government about $6 million in administrative costs related to Fairfax foster care candidates after it was determined that they did not meet requirements for reimbursement.
County spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said that the issue was one of guidance provided by the state and focused on foster care prevention. The federal reimbursement unit was not involved, since it seeks funds for children already in the system.