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State gets five-year extension of a funding waiver to help at-risk children

Florida’s child welfare system got a boost Monday with the approval of a five-year renewal of a federal waiver that allows the state to have more options in helping children from troubled homes.

The waiver enables the state to use Title IV-E federal foster care funds to pay for services it deems necessary for children in at-risk families, whether it's mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment. In the past, that money could only be used for children placed in the foster care system.

The waiver "allows us to have more flexibility in the services we provide families," said Stephen Pennypacker, assistant secretary for programs for the state Department of Children and Families. 

Florida was the first state to get a federal waiver and in the past had only short-term extensions. Getting a five-year extension means "we can continue to demonstrate the impact it’s been having and hopefully make it permanent," said Shawn Salamida, the CEO of the community-based care program Partnership for Strong Families in Gainesville.

He said the waiver enables workers to identify families at risk of foster care placement and "use funds to provide services to intervene to keep the kids safe and families intact."

The waiver has been a factor in helping to reduce the number of kids in the state's child welfare system, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children’s First.

“The waiver is necessary for the state of Florida to continue to use federal dollars earmarked for foster care to be used for prevention and intervention,” she said. “It’s very necessary to keep children in their homes.”

Pennypacker said the number of children in foster care dropped from 20,987 in the fiscal year 2004-2005 to 15,217 in fiscal year 2010-2011. 

The need for funds hasn't gone away with that decrease, Salamida said. "There's a shift in where the dollars are spent," he said. The number of families receiving services to keep children at home has gone up.

The waiver first went into effect under former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006. After its expiration in 2011, the waiver was extended in three-month increments and now won’t have to be renewed until 2019.