Latest Objection to Family First Act: You’re Kidding, Right?

Maybe the Family First Act has a better chance of passing than I thought.

I assumed passage was unlikely. But the latest argument from those who think the bill would go too far is so absurd that it sounds like an act of desperation. In fact, I wasn’t going to bother writing about it, until I saw that the Los Angeles Times cited it in an editorial as a reason to oppose the bill.

Opinion_Feature_ImageThe argument goes like this: Under current law, under a collection of highly unlikely circumstances, a small subset of kinship foster care placements could, at some point, lead to a situation where a later placement that otherwise would be eligible for federal aid would not be eligible for such aid.

That’s because, under these narrow circumstances, the income of the former kinship caregivers would be used to determine if the subsequent placement is eligible for reimbursement. Normally, the income of the birth parents is used.  (Yes, we’re talking about that important, and very helpful, provision of current law known as the “lookback.”)

But if the Family First Act passes, then – oh, wait, this has nothing to do with the Family First Act.

And that’s the first problem with this lame excuse for opposing the Family First Act.  The problem isn’t in the Family First Act – it’s in existing law.

So, given the penchant of child welfare agencies to whine about anything that doesn’t bring in money, why haven’t we heard about it until now?  Probably because it affects so few cases.

How the Quirk Works

In order for a case to be ineligible for federal Title IV-E foster care funds because of this quirk in existing law, all of these things have to happen:

  • The child must be placed in a kinship foster home that is not licensed the way homes with strangers are licensed. That doesn’t mean the placement isn’t foster care, it just means the grandparents or other relatives were unwilling to go through licensing or, more likely, unable to meet hypertechnical licensing requirements geared more to middle-class creature comforts than to actual health and safety issues.

Some of these placements are reported when states tell the federal government how many children they’ve taken away, but many are not. It amounts to a foster-care Twilight Zone that allows states to understate how often they tear apart families.

The issue does not arise with licensed kinship foster parents since they are treated identically to all other foster parents.

  • The relative has to give up caring for the child after six months. That happens, of course, but one of the many benefits of kinship foster care is that it tends to be more stable than what should properly be called “stranger care.”
  • The next placement for this child has to be with a licensed relative or a stranger care home or an institution. (Otherwise it’s not eligible for federal reimbursement anyway.)
  • The grandparent’s (or other relatives’) income has to be higher than the level allowed for a case to receive federal reimbursement under the lookback. That’s not likely to happen, often because part of the reason many grandparents and other relatives are unlicensed is that they, like the parents, are poor – so they can’t meet those hypertechnical licensing requirements.

Many cases may meet one of these criteria, but how many are likely to meet all of them?

The feeble attempt to link this to the Family First Act goes like this: The bill would make more services available to help families stay together, and those services sometimes might be provided to those families while their children were placed with relatives, so more children will be placed with relatives, so this tiny little quirk will be ever so slightly less tiny.

But the services that can be reimbursed under the Family First Act are extremely limited – that’s one of the reasons I’m still against it.  And the top priority for use of those services is supposed to be birth families while their children stay with those birth families – avoiding any kind of disruption in the child’s life. So there should be only a very small increase in kinship placements due to the Family First Act.

Escape from the Twilight Zone

I would like to suggest, however, a modest proposal to fix this modest problem. Exempt any unlicensed kinship care placement from the quirk in current law, on one condition: The placement must be reported to the federal government as a foster-care placement. Actually, that’s already required under federal regulations defining an entry into care, but the requirement is not enforced.  In other words, no more hiding these placements in the foster care Twilight Zone.

Substantively, this changes nothing. It’s a truth-in-labeling clause. Twilight Zone placements were foster care placements all along. This suggestion simply would provide an incentive for child welfare agencies to be honest about what they’ve been doing all along.

Dredging up this obscure quirk in current law is a bizarre effort to kill a bill that already didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

That very desperation illustrates how deeply the foster-care industrial complex clings to the status quo.  And it illustrates why real reform requires much stronger medicine than the Family First Act.

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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).