Advocates who have been pushing the District to spend more to find jobs for welfare recipients are protesting a decision to take $11 million from the city's welfare budget to give to Child and Family Services, a troubled agency under court receivership.
Money previously earmarked for welfare-to-work programs will be used instead by the agency that oversees the foster care system to help fragile families whose children are in danger of entering foster care.
The decision by Carolyn N. Graham, acting chief of the Department of Human Services, has been denounced as a "raid" on welfare funds to prop up a mismanaged agency. Graham, who took over DHS last week, is also deputy mayor for children, youth and families.
Child and Family Services and its court-appointed receiver, Ernestine F. Jones, have been under intense criticism concerning allegations of mismanagement and shoddy accounting. The city's chief financial officer, Valerie Holt, has asked the inspector general to investigate, and she is questioning the agency's recent spending of $3.4 million to move its offices and buy new furniture.
"The city should not be using [welfare] money to bail out an agency in difficult problems of its own making," said Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. "The money to help women and get and keep jobs is desperately needed for that purpose."
Federal welfare reform put a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits, and the District's clock has been ticking for three years. Critics of Graham's plan say welfare families are at risk unless the city acts quickly to move them toward self-sufficiency.
"It doesn't make sense to take money from people on welfare who will be in crisis in two years to serve families already in crisis," said Sczerina Perot, a lawyer with the Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Graham said that she is "acutely aware that the clock is ticking" and that she intends to make welfare-to-work programs a top priority.
"The welfare-to-work effort is not going to be compromised," she said. "These dollars won't negatively impact that effort in any shape or form."
The city's welfare office receives $92.6 million a year in federal funds for its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the District kicks in an additional $75 million. Last year, $83 million was spent in cash payments to clients; audits showing how much was spent on finding jobs for clients are not complete.
Graham said child care money for mothers seeking and holding jobs will double this fiscal year, to $33 million. The District, she said, will soon award contracts to groups charged with placing mothers into work experience and jobs.
The Human Service Department's welfare budget was particularly vulnerable because millions of dollars were carried over from last year. The agency's contractors aren't paid until they meet specific goals, such as finding a client a job, and the city's contractors performed so poorly that much of the money was not paid.
The city needs to redouble its efforts to help welfare recipients find jobs, said Nina Dastur, of the Legal Aid Society. "If the city fails to make families self-sufficient before time limits hit," she said, "the crisis in 2002 could further burden the foster care system."
Graham said most of the families who benefit from Child and Family Services programs also are welfare families, who will be helped by the agency's intervention.