Robert T. Garrett | The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Texas’ budget has more than 5,000 “line items,” ranging from just five bucks a year to $15 billion.

They’re the fine print where budget-writing rubber meets the road, where lawmakers put an imprint on programs and decide if millions of people will get vital services — or not. They represent everything from children’s schooling to benefits for the needy to layoffs for state and higher education employees.

But they also represent simple items for everyday Texans. Consider the swing set in Julie and Randy Dennison’s backyard in east Plano.

The Dennisons are bringing up three of their grandchildren, saving the state many thousands of dollars by keeping the children out of foster care. And they would have done it anyway, even if Child Protective Services hadn’t said it would give them $500 per child for three years and an upfront stipend of $1,000 for home refurbishing.

But it would have required some lifestyle downsizing, Julie Dennison said. There would have been no swing set, probably no swim lessons, and no trampoline, which the family purchased last week with their second annual state payment of $1,500.

“That is stuff that we could not have gone out and bought,” Dennison said. “It meant this wonderful swing set that they play on every single day.”

The program is a tiny part of the state budget. But this year, with a shortfall that means lawmakers would need an extra $27 billion to keep state services at the same levels over the next two years, practically every line item is under a microscope, subject to deep cuts.

In early drafts of the budget, there are 460 agency missions, known as “strategies,” with two zeroes beside them, meaning they would be totally eliminated.

This is the story of one of those: The 6-year-old push at CPS to save huge foster care bills for taxpayers by using limited stipends to nudge relatives, godparents and even good neighbors to take in abused and neglected children. In the current budget cycle, the program is spending about $17 million and provides payments to parents of nearly 12,000 children.

The Dennisons don’t want to discuss the circumstances that led to CPS workers’ delivering the three little ones — two girls and a boy — to their home in June 2009.

It was a shock, though, to take inventory, Julie Dennison said.

“When we got these three grandkids, we literally got two small suitcases,” she recalled. “That was it. We had to purchase clothing, bedding, beds, school supplies, shoes, coats … toys, art supplies — everything imaginable. You can’t do that for three kids for $1,000,” she said, referring to the initial “integration payment” the state provided.

Without an inheritance from her mother in-law, who died a few years earlier, “the financial burden would’ve been terrible,” Dennison said. “We’ve had to tap into our retirement to help support our grandkids. We love them. We’re doing that.”

The children, now ages 4, 6 and 7, had expensive medical and dental treatment paid for by Medicaid.

But that was before November, when their court case was closed and legal custody transferred from CPS to the Dennisons. With the transfer, they lost the free health care, psychological therapy, and state college tuition and fees accorded to foster and adopted children.

Unlike the Dennisons, foster and adoptive parents are paid between $400 and $700 a month to care for a child, more if a foster child has health or psychological issues.

“It doesn’t make sense that the state will pay a complete stranger to take care of them but not a relative,” Dennison said.

The budgets introduced by GOP leaders in both chambers last month would cut what foster parents are paid by 12 percent. They would largely preserve free child care for working foster parents, while zeroing out both the stipends and free day care for qualifying relatives and other close family friends offering unpaid “kinship care.”

“This is just stupid. This is dumb,” said Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a House social services budget writer who closely follows CPS issues.

At a hearing earlier this month, Dukes, D-Austin, said she was stunned to learn legislative budget staff had not analyzed how much the foster care population might increase if kinship supports are eliminated.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, urged the head of CPS’ parent agency, the Department of Family and Protective Services, to find a way to restore the kinship care funds.

“We’ve had success there,” he said. “Can we do more [and] continue to increase the number of kids that we have diverted away from our foster care system?”

According to the agency chief, Anne Heiligenstein, the department pays an average of $1,939 per child per month for foster care.

Using her average costs, the state is avoiding a $209,412 foster-care tab for the Dennisons’ three grandchildren over three years. In the same time, the kinship care payments would total $5,500.

Jane Burstain, a child welfare expert at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank in Austin, says Texas came late to the push to pay relatives. While states vary widely in their approaches, some have paid relatives for decades, she said.

“We were getting a lot of free relative care,” Burstain said. Even with the modest stipends, she added, “it’s almost free.”

Since the Legislature instituted a payment system statewide in 2005, the percentage of children in the state’s legal custody who stay with relatives or family friends in unpaid care has increased to 31 percent, from 22 percent, Heiligenstein said.

“That is the front door to foster care, and we are hoping fewer children come through,” she told Senate budget writers recently.

In an interview, she made a humanitarian as well as a fiscal case for restoring $14.5 million in the two-year budget to keep the stipends flowing. It could be done with about $3 million of state tax dollars; the rest would be federal money.

“Children do better when they’re with family,” Heiligenstein said. “When you don’t place them with strangers and take them away from everything they know … the outcomes are typically better. But the outcome for the taxpayer is also better.”

West chided her for not putting restoration higher on her “wish list.” (Relative caregiver payments rank sixth on her list of 13 proposed restorations. Heiligenstein’s top priorities are rescuing a year-old effort to retool how the state pays for foster care and to avert loss of extra CPS caseworkers hired in recent years.)

In 2008, Congress passed a law that requires states to advise relatives they could get licensed and become paid foster-care providers to their young kin.

Heiligenstein, savoring the irony, said, “Yes, Grandmother could opt to be a paid foster mother if she wanted.”

Dukes, the House budget writer, said the introduced budget bills would be cruel to families who “may wish to take that [young] family member in but are financially incapable of doing so,” especially because many of the children CPS removes are with siblings.

“It’s not that they don’t have love in their bank account, it’s that they don’t have dollars in there,” she said.

In Plano, Julie Dennison said it’s time for lawmakers to open the state purse to assist relative caregivers who struggle to pay for sports, museum visits and a host of amenities.

As they battle to overcome past traumas and educational deficits, abused and neglected children deserve and need “some kind of enrichment programs,” said Dennison, who raised five children and is now a stay-at-home grandmother.

“I wonder if anybody’s gone into the jails and asked them, ‘What kind of home did you come from?’” she said.

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