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Idaho suspends social worker scholarship program, cites budget concerns

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(Idaho Capital Sun) — As Alyssa Reynolds walks down the halls of an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare office, she sees familiar faces: Students who’d received a scholarship meant to boost Idaho’s foster care workers.
That led her to pitch a story for Boise State University on the success of the Title IV-E Child Welfares Scholar program.
The program is “a great recruitment and retention tool that had been available to employees around the state,” Reynolds, who is Boise State’s program coordinator, told the Idaho Capital Sun in an interview.
“The future impact is what I’m really scared of.”
But citing budget constraints, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is suspending the program meant to recruit Idaho social workers starting this summer. The department plans to reconsider the program’s budget after fiscal year 2025, which ends in June 2025, department spokesperson AJ McWhorter told the Sun in an email.
“At the time our budget was submitted, and through the legislative process, we were unaware of the budgeting shortfall. We were aware of the increase in (the) number of complex children’s cases and the demand and cost of beds. The department was and is pursuing other opportunities and facilities to care for these children,” McWhorter said.
Idaho’s pipeline of social workers will be affected by cuts, child advocates say
But some advocates worry the program cuts could hamper Idaho’s ability to hire foster care workers.
RELATED | ‘I have not seen it like this’: Shortage of foster homes in Idaho reaches crisis point (2021)
“We’re not going to ever be able to improve child welfare outcomes if we don’t have a really strong workforce,” said Idaho Voices for Children Executive Director Christine Tiddens. “And cutting the scholarship program that essentially was the pipeline of social workers into the field is really devastating. And the future impact is what I’m really scared of.”
The program provides scholarships to students seeking careers in child welfare, requiring students who receive the scholarships to work for the department for a set time.
The agency plans to continue supporting scholarships to five students — out of 21 who received the stipend this year — who were in the middle of scholarship cycles on the program, McWhorter said. The department also plans to continue offering internship opportunities to Idaho college students, McWhorter said, and work with recruiters to recruit and retain child welfare staff.
“Our priority is to these children, to make sure they are placed in appropriate, safe placements which will help them with the challenges they are experiencing. We are working diligently to do that,” he said.
Rep. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, said she viewed the move as a temporary reduction to the program instead of a permanent change. Recruiting social workers is still a priority for the state, she said.

Britt Raybould

“We are invested in making sure that when the funds are available, that it is a continued priority of the state to both recruit and help educate professionals to be social workers in Idaho,” Raybould said.
Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she hopes the move doesn’t represent the end of the program, which she said “provides a high return on investment.”
Why the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare suspended the scholarship program
The budget concerns driving the agency’s decision to suspend the program stemmed from higher costs of children in foster care needing higher levels of care, McWhorter told the Sun in an email. And he said the decision could be re-evaluated after Fiscal Year 2025, which ends in June 2025, “depending on the program’s landscape.”
“As children with more complex needs are entering the department’s custody, the cost to care for those children has increased,” McWhorter said. “These costs often include providing residential levels of care to support children in their healing process.”
The health department announced the cuts to program staff on April 1, days before the Idaho Legislature — which sets agency budgets — would adjourn for the year.
To address the budget shortfall, the Idaho health department is cutting spending and contracts in other areas, McWhorter said.
Wintrow said it was unfortunate that the health department wasn’t aware of the budget shortfalls until late, and that it’s unfortunate that the scholarship program got cut. She said she’s glad to hear that current students will still be supported.
“I would have preferred they found the oversight earlier, so they can work with the Legislature on that. But they didn’t. And so at this point, they’re probably stuck with ‘What do we do to shore up the numbers so we don’t overspend and then get in worse trouble?’” Wintrow told the Sun in an interview. “Because I don’t think the Legislature — in the political climate we’re in with Health and Welfare — would like that. So my sense is they’re doing their absolute best to try to shore up the budget.”
Raybould, who serves on the Legislature’s powerful budget-setting committee, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said services or programs can fluctuate, and policymakers must prioritize based on the greatest need. 
“If I’m looking at weighing the difference between day-to-day care for children who need enhanced or more advanced services to ensure that they’re safe, and that they have the resources that they need. That’s going to be something that’s going to get prioritized over sending dollars towards education,” Raybould said. “And it’s not that both aren’t important. It’s a question of an urgent concern needing to be addressed first.”
Raybould said based on what she’s heard, the Department of Health and Welfare responded as best it could. And she said lawmakers are “more than willing to participate in addressing this” if long-term legislative action is required, she said. 
The health department previously ended contracts funding the program during the Great Recession, McWhorter said.
Idaho State University’s Title IV-E Program Coordinator Allison Huerta said the budget cut news came as a shock to some students. Some had already applied for the scholarship next year, Huerta told the Sun in an interview. She said some are now not planning to finish their master’s degrees. 
A month earlier, Huerta had asked the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to boost scholarship stipends by a few hundred dollars. When the health department announced the cuts in April, officials shared little information about the budget cuts.
“They didn’t give us any specifics. … I doubt anyone specifically asked because it was a little bit of a blindside, honestly, the way that we found out,” Huerta told the Sun.
Now that the program’s contracts are not being renewed, Huerta’s job ends May 31, she said.
Reynolds, at Boise State, said she knows that the program wasn’t guaranteed to continue. But it’s been the norm since she’s worked in her job for over 11 years, she said. 
Program helped recruit for ‘high visibility,’ ‘low respect’ social work jobs, student says
This academic year, 21 students received stipends — varying from $6,000 to $8,000 each year, depending on where they attend schools and which degrees they seek, according to an email Legislative Services Office analyst Alex Williamson sent to Wintrow, which the Sun obtained.
The program had three contracts with Boise State University, Idaho State University, and Lewis-Clark State College, ranging from $72,000 to $80,000, according to the email.
University costs and stipends are funded by nearly 85% in federal grants and 15% of state funds, Williamson said. But a portion of the federal funds are part of Social Security Block Grant “nearing full utilization,” Williamson said.
For Shane Vervain, receiving the stipend helped give financial peace of mind while pursuing his master’s in social work at Boise State, he said. 

Shane Vervain | Courtesy photo

Social work is “high visibility” and “low respect,” he said. But the connections it allows with families are rewarding, he said. 
Vervain hangs reminders of his work’s impact on his office wall: An orb from a former coworker who retired, and had helped him with cases, like connecting a family to counseling services. And a painting that reminds him of one of his first cases, where Vervain said he was able to help another family in need.
“It’s not until you’re in the job, and you’re working here, do you really get the exposure …,” Vervain said. “ And that’s kind of why having a four-year scholarship was really important because it drew people in with an external force. And then it made you want to stay because you actually have the connection to the work and the families from being able to see all the services we can help people with.”
Vervain, a social worker for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, will graduate this year. He wouldn’t get other funds from the scholarship. But he said he worries about how it could affect social worker recruitment.
“People don’t understand the impact of what it meant to encourage people to apply for a job that people don’t want to apply for, just hearing the stories,” Vervain said. “Public image impacts a lot of people’s perspective and motivation. And to help them change that, getting them into the field to actually see the good work and encouragement of services we’re doing to families, sometimes needs that extra push.”
The post Idaho suspends social worker scholarship program, cites budget concerns appeared first on East Idaho News.

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