Audit Shows New Georgia Children’s Agency Serving Fewer Children

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In 2008, Georgia combined two state offices serving troubled youth in the name of effectiveness and efficiency. Now, an audit says the newly created office has resulted in little savings on overhead while managing to serve only about one-third as many children.

The analysis found “no evidence” that the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) is more efficient, state Auditor Russell Hinton said. Administrative costs remain about the same as before the merger, he reported, and a new grant-making philosophy built in another layer of bureaucracy that may well cost taxpayers more.

Hinton also found that the office was carrying over unspent money from one year to another, rather than returning it to the state treasury as required by law. Legislative budget-writers last year wound up cutting the office's appropriation by more than $1 million to make up the difference.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who questioned the office's spending a year ago, said Tuesday she was pleased with Hinton's findings.

"The audit confirmed my concerns about the way in which funds were blended and being used," Oliver said. "I'm happy that under new direction and new leadership there seems to be more serious attention to these accounting issues."

Jen Bennecke, the previous director of GOCF, tangled with legislators a year ago over the office's spending practices. She stepped down in August, making way for the new director, Katie Jo Ballard.

Ballard has worked to straighten out accounting discrepancies and restore lawmakers' confidence, Oliver and  Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville) both stressed.

"It's like a breath of fresh air down there," Houston said.

Ballard could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue created the Office for Children and Families in 2008 by combining the Children's Trust Fund Commission, which issued grants to reduce child abuse and neglect, and the Children and Youth Coordinating Council, which funded community-based programs trying to reduce juvenile delinquency. Merging the two, the thinking was, would eliminate duplication of effort and make more money available for the programs.

It didn't quite work out that way. The merged offices saved much less on salaries than had been projected, Hinton said, and spent more on programs that don't directly serve children, such as buying computers, building websites, creating media campaigns and evaluating programs. Those annual costs climbed from $3.5 million to $4.6 million in just two years.

Auditors also questioned the cost of the office's move in 2009 to a so-called "system-of-care" model for funding services for children in need.

Under system of care, public and private agencies work as a team to come up with an array of services -- tutoring, counseling, mental health or child welfare, for example -- for targeted kids. Communities choose a lead agency to administer the grant money and subcontract with other agencies to provide services.

Coordinating all those players costs money. Overall, the audit found, recipients spent 42 cents of every grant dollar on overhead, including evaluating the funded programs. Those costs ran as high as 78 percent for one county's programs.

And while the programs cost more to run, they served far fewer people. The office in 2010 reported serving about 6,200 families, down from 18,800 the year before, and 29,000 individuals (down from 86,000).

While the GOCF staff pointed out various improvements and additional activities," the audit said, "these activities could not be tied to any changes in effectiveness."

Even though the agency's programs are reaching fewer children, auditors said staffers told them that "the quality of the services provided has increased. Their expectation is that the grant providers will create a change in children's lives that will lead to better outcomes and children will not have a need for services after being served through a GOCF-funded program."

Questions about the office's spending practices cropped up after newly-elected Gov. Nathan Deal pushed in 2011 to have it take control of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a public-private collaboration and its $8 million budget.

"We wanted to leave it where it was because some people just don’t want to give donations to the government," said Houston, who was then chair of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing programs under the governor's office.

"That really started the fuss, I guess," Houston said. "We did not want it moved and we held our ground."

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