Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice in 2015: The Big Questions

A few weeks back we reflected on the stories and trends that defined juvenile justice and child welfare in 2014.

So what might 2015 bring on the national stage? Here are a few things to watch on that front:

Differential Response Unraveling?

Years ago, differential response (DR) was heralded as a new solution, a better way to help families in crisis. At a basic level, DR splits reports of abuse or neglect that warrant further investigation into two tracks: traditional investigations and the new category of family assessments. In the family assessment track Child Protective Services offers voluntary services rather than using the threat of removing children to impose services.

In 2012, when the Department of Health and Human Services took applications for “waivers” from the spending rules of Title IV-E, the federal foster care entitlement, a handful of states made DR part of their plans.

But we may one day look back at 2014 as the year when the tide turned on DR. A federally funded evaluation found mixed results for three states that use DR: Ohio, Colorado and Illinois. The strongest indictment against the popular child protection “reform” came in the form of results out of Illinois, where families on the family assessment track were more likely to have re-reports of child abuse than families on the traditional track. The state did not even wait for the final results; it got out of the DR business just a few weeks before 2014.

Illinois is not alone. Minnesota was an early adopter of DR, and a 2004 evaluation of its program propelled the program to over half the states in the country.  But the death of a child at the hands of his stepmother has sparked debate about the practice and just how hard state leadership is pushing it. Eric Dean, just four years of age, was the subject of 15 different abuse and neglect reports before he was brutally beaten to death, and received two family assessments.

On the last day of 2014, the Minnesota Department of Human Services released a slate of recommendations that would seriously curtail the state’s reliance on differential response. And a state senate Hearing on child protection held in January pounded the point home.

Ban on Life Without Parole Sentences: Retroactive?

This only affects a small slice of people in the nation, but is worth mentioning.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that automatically sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole (LWOP) is unconstitutional. A judge could issue an LWOP sentence objectively to a juvenile convicted of a homicide, but it could not be a sentence based on an automatic structure.

Nine state courts have applied the ruling retroactively to inmates who received LWOP when they were juveniles, and four courts have ruled that the law is not retroactive. Most state courts have not ruled at all.

The high court agreed to hear Toca v. Louisiana, a case on this issue of retroactivity, and may settle things once and for all in 2015.

Adoption: A Plan to Track Failure

The passage of H.R. 4980 last year charged the Department of Health and Human Services with tracking the number of children who “enter foster care under supervision of the State after finalization of an adoption or legal guardianship.”

It seems like it would be a tricky undertaking, because children who are adopted from foster care would re-enter it essentially as a different person as far as casework goes. Many won’t even have the same name.

As YSI reported earlier this week, HHS claims to have a notice of proposed rulemaking in the clearance process now regarding this. So we should absolutely know what the game plan is in 2015.

Will Foster Care Uptick Continue?

2014 brought news that in 2013, the number of youth in foster care had gone up for the first time since Bill Clinton was our commander-in-chief. There were 5,000 more youths in care during 2013 than 2012, according to the annual report of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS).

AFCARS data published this year will tell us whether it was an anomaly or the beginning of a possible upward trend. YSI will have a sharp eye on the trends in California for two reasons: the state accounted for 40 percent of that increase, and because the increase in the state seems to be fueled mostly by an uptick in foster care placements for Latino children.

Congressional Climate of Compromise?

All right, stop laughing at that masterful alliteration for a minute and consider the glass-half-full view of Washington. You have Republicans in position to move legislation, and a president who has overseen gridlock for the most part in recent years.

The looming presidential election will make major legislation difficult, but that’s no reason to think they can’t sneak a few compromises into the usual morass. Two youth-related issues with decent potential this year:

Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Brookings Institution Fellow Ron Haskins lauds the Obama and Bush administrations for making evidence-based programs a priority.

One such program named by Haskins is the Nurse-Family Partnership, a model that involves the pairing of poor first-time mothers with nurses trained in child health. That model and several others received a major infusion of federal support as part of the Affordable Care Act’s Home Visitation: $1.5 billion over five years.

That funding got a small extension to March, but after that the tap runs out. In December, a group of 750 organizations sent a letter to Congressional leaders pushing them to extend the program at its 2014 line of $400 million.

Before the Democrats lost the Senate, then Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told YSI that he planned to move on home visitation in the near future. He’ll have to push that from the minority side as ranking member, because Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) now has the gavel.

Recasting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.

It was a bipartisan bill that now has bipartisan opposition. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee moved a rewrite markup for two consecutive years. The House has not followed suit, but YSI has been told that Education and the Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-Minn.) is eager to move on it.

If an education bill makes it through Congress, it could include further pressure on counties and cities to ensure school stability for foster youth. Under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, child welfare systems are required to ensure that students are able to stay in their school of origin when taken into foster care.

But that left a hole, because child welfare systems don’t transport students to school; school systems do. In the recent education iterations out of HELP, language introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) would place the same onus on schools as Fostering Connections did on systems.

The War on (Psychotropic) Drugs

As we mentioned in our 2014 review, Phil McGraw (known better as “Dr. Phil”) emerged as a potentially strong advocate for foster youth on the issue of mental health. McGraw – invited to testify before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources – was poignant on the subject of psychotropic drugs.

At the same hearing, Human Resources Subcommittee Chair David Reichert (R-Wash.) called the overuse of psych meds for foster youths a “bipartisan issue. We are together on this.”

So this issue is on both parties’ radar, and it resonates outside the Beltway. Karen de Sá, perhaps the greatest youth services reporter of all time, recently completed an investigative report on mental health drugs in California’s foster care system. (Click here for our interview with her on the series.)

The big question for 2015, in our opinion, is whether the administration can draw some bipartisan love for its plan to fight overuse of psych meds, which made its way into Obama’s 2015 budget request.

Click here to read the details on that plan, but the bottom line is this: It has the phrase “$750 million” attached to it, so the administration will likely have to prove it will save money over the long haul.

L.A. Overhaul

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors accepted and agreed to dozens of recommendations to reform its child protection and child welfare system from a blue ribbon commission that was created in the wake of a high-profile child fatality. It agreed to create an Office of Child Protection (OCP) to oversee and connect the many agencies working with families and children in crisis. In the short term, the board assembled a transition team to get the reform ball rolling.

Former board chair Don Knabe has no love for the process. He has been vocal about his belief that the system could have been changed without the involvement of a commission and what he sees as a new layer of bureaucracy.

Only a few of the commission’s recommendations were acted upon in 2014. In early January, the Los Angeles County CEO’s office created an interim Office of Child Protection, presumably to keep things on track until they hire someone to lead the real one.

For more insight, read this excellent look at the process so far by Chronicle Managing Editor Christie Renick.

Movement on most of the recommendations has been put on hold until OCP has a leader hired by the board. How long that hiring process takes will dictate how productive a year it is for reform in Los Angeles.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1210 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at