Family First Act Has Problems, But The “Imminent Risk” Provision Isn’t One of Them

Have you heard the one about how the Family First Prevention Services Act supposedly isn’t really about prevention? The claim is based on the fact that the bill would require a child to be at “imminent risk” of foster care placement before federal Title IV-E funds could be used to fund prevention services for that family.

Opinion_Feature_ImageIn fact, while the Family First Act has many problems, the “imminent risk” clause makes perfect sense – and yes, it is about child abuse prevention.

In June, Sean Hughes wrote:

Despite including the word “prevention” in its title, by only providing an entitlement to supportive services when families have reached that level of crisis, the bill isn’t really funding prevention at all.

 And Angie Schwartz tells us:

The goal of prevention should be to prevent abuse and neglect, not just prevention of entry into foster care.

Schwartz argues that the Family First Act doesn’t do this because “prior statutes” define imminent risk of foster care as something that happens only after a child has been a “substantiated victim” of abuse or neglect.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Department of Health and Human Services would choose to define “imminent risk” the same way in regulations implementing the Family First Act, were it to become law. Schwartz and Hughes are still wrong. Their statements reflect a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a “substantiated victim” of child abuse or neglect.

It does not necessarily mean that the child was abused or neglected. For starters, state definitions of neglect often are so broad and so vague that they are synonymous with poverty. So this was a “substantiated” case of “neglect” that, in fact, led to removal. So was thisAnd this. And several of the cases discussed here. None of these cases reflects actual neglect.

In Washington, D.C., in 2012, social services officials actually used the threat of reporting families to the child welfare agency to discourage them from seeking help with their housing problems.

In at least 28 states, statutes say explicitly that a case can be “substantiated” if the child is at risk of abuse or neglect – most often “substantial risk” – it doesn’t even have to be imminent. One place where the “imminent risk” language does appear: the federal definition of child abuse and neglect in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

Given that it is entirely possible to be “substantiated” as a child abuser without having committed an act of child abuse, it is entirely reasonable to target federal aid for child abuse prevention services to such cases.

Were there a law that allowed the use of federal Title IV-E funds for emergency cash assistance, or rent subsidies, or child care, that would indeed be child abuse prevention since it would prevent cases such as those noted above from escalating to the point where a child actually was harmed.

Preventing Foster Care Prevents Abuse in Foster Care

There is one other way in which prevention of foster care also prevents child abuse – and this is what the take-the-child-and-run crowd most hopes everyone will forget: All those studies that keep finding that many foster children were abused in foster homes. The record of group homes and institutions on this subject is even worse.

So in many cases, preventing foster care is preventing child abuse.

The real problem with the “prevention” piece of the Families First Act concerns another point raised by Schwartz: It is way too limited in the kinds of prevention for which IV-E funds could be used.

The bill would reinforce the worst instincts of child protective services agencies, paying largely for the kinds of help that make the helpers feel good, such as endless “counseling” and “parent education,” instead of what families really need. It’s not clear from the article discussing Schwartz’s concerns whether Schwartz is concerned about the lack of such funding for such services for birth parents; she’s clearly concerned about the failure to fund them for grandparents and other relatives who provide kinship foster care. In fact, both are a problem.

This failure is one of the main reasons I oppose the Family First Act.

Why targeting “imminent risk” makes sense

Of course, some would argue for both: funding more types of services and dropping the “imminent risk” clause. Indeed, that seems to be Schwartz’s position, at least for grandparents.

There are two problems with this. One is the obvious, practical problem that if you create an open-ended IV-E entitlement for “prevention” and say it can be applied to pretty much any family in America, the cost of the bill would skyrocket and it would never pass.

But there’s another problem: An entitlement of this kind that is too broad will vastly expand the net of coercive intervention into families. Instead of providing genuine help to families that really need it, an entitlement that is overly broad will lead to governments dragging many more families that don’t need “help” into a forced march through counseling and parent education that will only add stress to families, and harm their children.

So if and when the Senate takes up the bill, Senators should leave the “imminent risk” provision alone.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).