Family Feud: Family Connection Partnership and its $8M Budget in Limbo

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Buried in the Governor’s budget is a plan that is stirring up conflict among children’s advocates in Georgia, pitting supporters of two child welfare agencies against each other.

The plan would fold the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) effective July 1, 2011. Currently the Partnership is attached to the Department of Human Services.

Officials of the GOCF say the change would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move counter that it would undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

This is the second recent attempt to increase the scope of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created two years ago by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Last year he tried to move the Georgia Commission on Family Violence to the Office, a move rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many former commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration. The issue remains under study.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children and families, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The Office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.

The Georgia Family Connection Partnership has its roots in a pilot initiative established by then-Gov. Zell Miller in 1991 after Georgia placed 50th in the first KIDS COUNT, a national assessment of the welfare of children by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That project evolved into the Partnership, which provides research, planning and technical assistance to help local communities improve the lives of children, By 2004, all of Georgia’s 159 counties had become part of the Family Connection Partnership network. The Partnership has received funding from the Casey, Wal-Mart, Woodruff and Kaiser Foundations.

Gaye Smith

In a blog post on the Family Connection website, Executive Director Gaye Smith said the proposed move caught her by surprise. Supporters are posting notes on Facebook and other Internet sites.

The issue has been simmering for the last two weeks, and came out at the first meeting of the Children & Youth Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Gaye Smith was the kickoff speaker, introduced by Chairwoman Judy Manning (R-Marietta) to brief members on the status of children in Georgia. Although the proposed budget change was not actually on the agenda, state Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) asked Smith about its implications.

“We feel like some things might be at risk,” Smith said, including “the private sector funding we have received up to this point over the last 20 years.” The proposal came “as a surprise to us,” she said.

The only other invited speaker also opposed the move. Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, told the committee that her organization would like to see the Partnership preserved in its current form. A blog on the Voices website says, “The logic behind this move is baffling… [Family Connection Partnership] has a reputation for good, reliable work in 159 counties of the state and helps multitudes of families. It secures decent funding from the private sector (much of which would be lost if absorbed into GOCF)…All that said we are left with the inevitable question: What problem would this move solve? I don’t have an answer. Do you?”

Jen Bennecke

The Governor's Office for Children and Families Executive Director Jen Bennecke was in the audience, but was not asked to speak. When we asked her about the possible consolidation after the meeting, Bennecke said it would promote “both efficiency and effectiveness....We’re looking at how can we better use our resources, and how can we improve outcomes.”

GOCF and the Partnership have prepared dueling documents presenting their arguments for and against the move. Here are some excerpts:

  • GOCF: The transfer would “maximize the state’s ability to leverage. . .state, federal and other funds to improve outcomes for children and families.”
  • Partnership: “Georgia Family Connection leverages $5 for every $1 of state funding from other local, state and federal funds . . .The change would in fact eliminate Georgia’s ability to match funds, and Georgia Family Connection risks losing private investments.”
  • GOCF: “As a unified agency it can better align its resources to facilitate collaborative solutions to statewide and local issues.”
  • Partnership: “Expanding GOCF, a state agency, runs contrary to a signature component of Gov. [Nathan] Deal’s budget—curbing the growth of the number of state employees. Beyond that we, like Gov. Deal, believe money is leveraged best in the form of local-state partnerships, and that Georgians should have the opportunity to shape investment in their communities.”
  • GOCF: “Governor’s Budget Recommendation would eliminate 5 positions and transfer $7,432,386 in state funds to GOCF.”
  • Partnership: “Because [the Partnership] is not a state agency, this proposed elimination of five positions does not reduce the state personnel head count and associated salaries. . .”

In its handout GOCF promises that the local Family Connection Partnerships will continue, as will the “planning, assessment and collaboration” that Partnership coordinators do in Georgia communities.

Rep. Sanford Bishop

Concern in some of those communities has reached the U.S. Capitol where Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) weighed in, writing a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal. “Calhoun County Family Connection, Early County Family Connection along with many other local organizations have expressed concern regarding the proposed consolidation and transfer of appropriated funds from Georgia Family Connection Partnership to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” Bishop wrote. “During these challenging economic times, it is vital that the many public-private partnerships that Georgia Family Connection Partnership has developed over many years continue into the future. . . . It therefore is important to ensure Georgia Family Connection’s continued success across the state, and I urge you to keep their concerns in mind as you finalize the state’s FY12 budget.”

The proposed 2012 budget must go through a gauntlet of hearings, votes and negotiations before it becomes final. At this point nothing is certain about the proposed move except that it is encountering strong opposition.

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