- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

The D.C. agency responsible for helping poor families pay for child care is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and research projects, as it plans to cut services to needy families receiving benefits.

The Office of Early Childhood Development has proposed lowering the income limits for families to qualify for federal subsidized child care beginning fiscal 2004 because it “expects to have less money to pay for child care subsidies,” according to its director, Barbara Ferguson Kamara.

“I’m not happy about it,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, who is a member of the council’s Committee on Human Services, which oversees the office. “I’m not sure their office is really managing these funds as effectively as they need to.”

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of a series of grants the agency handed out for training and research projects. The agency gave out four grants totaling $1.85 million to several colleges and universities in fiscal 2003.

“They’re spending a lot of money on contracts and a lot of money on training, and I’m not sure we’re seeing that,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

He said he has visited several day care centers in the program and was not impressed with what he saw. “I don’t get a sense of it being world class,” he said.

Agency officials said a $5 million budget cut is forcing them to cut services to needy families. In fiscal 2003, the office had a budget of $70.1 million compared with $64.8 million in fiscal 2004. Mrs. Kamara, who in 2002 earned $103,852, said the office also has been serving at “a far greater capacity than most other states.”

“We’ve served as high as 70 percent of eligible children,” she said.

Under the old limits, a family of three earning $41,640 a year could apply for child care assistance from the District. Under the proposed changes, the income level would drop to $30,520. For a family of two, the qualifying income level would drop from $33,180 to $24,240.

The fee scale is based on the federal poverty level, which is $12,120 for a family of two and $15,260 for a family of three.

The office is already the subject of a D.C. auditor’s investigation into why cost overruns forced it to put 1,000 children of low-income parents on a waiting list for services last year. Agency officials estimate that 500 children could stop receiving subsidies in fiscal 2004.

At the time the cost overruns were made public in May 2002, officials said the office served 19,000 children, nearly 2,000 more than the office had the money to serve that fiscal year. In fiscal 2001, the office served 23,801 children. About 31,500 children were eligible for subsidies that fiscal year.

D.C. Council member Sandy Allen, who chairs the Human Services Committee, called for the auditor’s investigation, which is currently pending. Mrs. Allen, Ward 8 Democrat, could not be reached for comment on the research grants.

An independent audit of the office completed last year found that millions of dollars had been spent in programs that were either overbilling the office or could not provide adequate records of the children they were enrolling.

About two-thirds, or $39.4 million, of the office’s fiscal 2004 budget comes in federal block grants. According to federal guidelines, states receiving the grants must spend at least 4 percent on “activities such as consumer education, resource and referral services, provider training, and caregiver recruitment designed to improve child care availability and quality.”

“We’re required to implement all these things through the block-grant program,” Mrs. Kamara said.

Financial documents obtained by The Washington Times show that the office gave four grants in fiscal 2003:

• $650,000 to the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy for a research project. Mrs. Kamara defended the expenditure, saying that every two years the office has to conduct a market-rate study. She said the grant also covers a series of reports and surveys conducted by the center.

• $729,000 to the University of the District of Columbia’s quasi-independent Early Childhood Leadership Institute. Mrs. Kamara said the institute provides a “professional development system” in which providers can enroll in seminars and degree programs in the child care field. The institute also manages a $200,000 scholarship fund to “expand the pool of people coming into the field.”

The institute’s director, Maurice Sykes, referred questions about the program to the university’s public information office, which did not answer repeated requests for information on the number of students that participate in and complete the program.

• $320,000 to the Frank Porter Graham Center at the University of North Carolina to implement what Mrs. Kamara calls a “nationally recognized” program of evaluating day care facilities called the Environmental Rating Scale Systems.

Mrs. Kamara said results are already being seen, with a dramatic growth in the number of day care providers who have received national accreditation. She said the evaluating standards are still two to three years from being fully implemented.

• $160,000 to Morgan State University in Baltimore to provide monitors for “assessments of the quality of care currently provided by child care providers” and to oversee the implementation of the standards being developed through the Graham Center.

The grants also provide funds for the monitors to receive training at the Graham Center. Mrs. Kamara said despite the presence of a team of in-house monitors who check facilities once a year, the Morgan State monitors will provide an “extra set of eyes” and will remain in place after the evaluation standards are fully implemented.

Mr. Mendelson said the amounts spent on the grants did not seem outrageous to him, but questioned whether some of the functions were “duplicative.”

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