Fostering Connections Act’s Uneven First Five Years

Last October the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (or Fostering Connections, as it is commonly known) turned five years old. As someone who helped write and pass that law, I can’t help but feel a little bittersweet at where things stand five years later. The Act’s considerable promise has been hamstrung by uneven progress in implementation thus far.

Fostering Connections is one of the most beneficial federal laws for foster children in decades. It provided, at state option, federal matching funds to extend eligibility for foster care up to age 21 and to support relatives who serve as guardians for children that have been removed from their home.

The bill also made it default federal law that states place siblings together; allow children and youth in foster care to remain in their school of origin; and better track and coordinate the health needs of foster children.

But no sooner had President George W. Bush signed Fostering Connections into law than the financial system collapsed. The fallout from the banking crisis and the subsequent recession devastated state budgets across the country, creating an inhospitable fiscal environment for pursuing new state initiatives and programs.

Some states admirably plowed ahead anyway, including here in California, where AB 12 was passed in 2010 to extend care to 21. But the majority of states deferred, and as of January 2013, just 17 states and the District of Columbia had extended care beyond 18.

Fortunately, now that state revenues have begun to improve the tide seems to be turning. Hawaii, Nebraska, and Florida all extended care to 21 this past year and Washington expanded its prior extension. Others, including Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia seem poised to follow suit soon.

Meanwhile the guardianship assistance program created by Fostering Connections has been more widely adopted by states, likely because these arrangements often reduce government expenditures in comparison to placing children in foster care. As of last September, 30 states and the District of Columbia are operating federally-approved subsidized guardianship programs. Still, that leaves 20 states that have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity to use federal funds to support relative guardians.

Other provisions in the law have not been fully implemented. Despite the mandate that siblings be placed together whenever possible and in frequent visits when impossible, 75 percent of siblings entering care today are separated from at least one brother or sister. Many of these siblings struggle to communicate with each other regularly.

Issues remain with the health care coordination plans states were required to put together as well. It is unclear how many states are complying with this mandate, and the federal government doesn’t seem to be effectively monitoring it. All the while, foster youth often continue to be subjected to unreliable health care access and overmedication and consequently suffer worse health outcomes.

Sometimes I also bemoan the policies we were advocating at the time that did not make their way into Fostering Connections. We wanted to create a new federal funding stream dedicated to child abuse and neglect prevention, get rid of the outdated and illogical income-based eligibility requirements for federal foster care assistance, and establish new means to better support and professionalize a beleaguered child welfare workforce.

We could not get bipartisan support for including these provisions in the bill five years ago, but they remain urgently needed today. Should Congress pursue federal child welfare finance reform in the next few years, these ideas should provide a starting point for discussions.

Despite the lagging implementation of Fostering Connections and the act’s limits, I remain very appreciative of what we were able to accomplish. Credit goes to both parties. Without Democratic Reps. Jim McDermott (Wash.), Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and George Miller (R-Calif.), Fostering Connections would never have been even introduced. Without Republican Rep. Jerry Weller (Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), President Bush never would have been enacted.

When I look at the present gridlock on Capitol Hill, I sincerely doubt that anything like Fostering Connections could pass nowadays. While partisanship was certainly an issue in 2008, congressional dysfunction has reached new lows. The major crux of Fostering Connections was an expansion of the Title IV-E entitlement. Given the current Republican Party’s antipathy for entitlement programs, I just can’t imagine that it would receive today the support it needed then.

That makes me worried about the urgency with which some advocates are pushing for finance reform. There is no question that finance reform is long overdue and that it has the potential to do great things for children and families. But there are also great perils inherent in that movement as well, including the seeming willingness of some to sacrifice the IV-E entitlement for greater funding flexibility.

Let’s keep building consensus about finance reform, but until the political conditions are ripe we should focus on ensuring full implementation of Fostering Connections. At this five-year point, I am happy to see the economy recovering and the fiscal environment for broader adoption of the state options for extended care and subsidized guardianships improving.

Let us hope that in the next five years the law’s full promise is realized and that the next round of reforms are enacted through a well-crafted child welfare finance reform bill that preserves the IV-E entitlement and maintains child safety while enabling more effective and efficient use of government funds.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer. 

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