Reductions to Idaho social service agencies are beginning to impact the help the state provides to people in need, according to agency officials. The Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) agencies that serve children, the mentally ill, and people needing help with substance abuse have received reductions and holdbacks comparable to other state agencies. DHW officials say those decisions are starting to reduce services.
“This whole budget of health and welfare is of great concern to many of us and the long-term effect that this may have on people that are in need in this state,” said Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello.
DHW’s $2 billion budget would increase slightly in Gov. Butch Otter’s recommended budget he presented to lawmakers last week, though some agencies within DHW, including child welfare, developmental disabilities, mental health services, and substance abuse would see year-over-year cuts, according to the Legislative Budget Book.
In addition to unpaid furloughs and not filling vacant job positions, there are targeted reductions to services. Idaho’s child welfare division plans to reduce its contracts for in-home services for adoption. The Idaho Child Find program, which helps connect young children with developmental disabilities to eligible state services, has been reduced in the current budget.
“There’s no point going out and finding a bunch of children if you don’t have adequate services for them,” said Michelle Britton, DHW’s Family and Community Services administrator, about the Idaho Child Find reduction.
There have also been six layoffs and 14 jobs left vacant in DHW’s agency providing mental health services for adults and children. Those cuts reduced state general funding for personnel by more than $1 million, and led to service reductions totaling more than $700,000. There have also been three layoffs at Idaho’s two psychiatric hospitals, and two layoffs for the state’s substance abuse treatment program.
Idaho lawmakers said service agencies are dealing with shrinking budgets well. “We’ve got some great staff that’s working very hard to make sure that we can meet our budget restrictions without harming our most vulnerable appropriations,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle.
Boise Democratic Sen. Nicole LeFavour said the cuts to social services could be impacting Idaho’s suicide rates. “Things have been pretty dire for a lot of families,” LeFavour said. She said that data from the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention and National Suicide Prevention hotline show an increase in suicides during the past several years. Idaho’s suicide rate was 10th in the nation in 2006. ““It does sound like there’s a fairly alarming level of change there,” LeFavour said.
A DHW official said the department wants to lower Idaho’s high suicide rate, but can’t say whether service reductions are leading to an increase. “We are always aware of the suicide rates, because they’re high, especially among adolescents,” said Kathleen Allyn, DHW’s behavioral health administrator. “It is generally true that hard economic times increase suicide rates… We don’t have hard data showing that we are seeing an increase demand for our (suicide prevention) services though we are seeing anecdotal data.”