A Look Back at 2018: The Year in Youth Services

2018 was a momentous year for The Chronicle of Social Change. We continued to extend our roots to new parts of the country (including New York, Michigan and Arizona) while embarking on ambitious national projects (including “Who Cares,” our annual effort to gauge state foster care capacity).

We were hardly alone in the “change” column. Below is Youth Services Insider’s attempt to tease out the most interesting themes in youth services from 2018.

Family Spending Stabilized

As we entered 2018, it seemed certain that the moment for the Family First Prevention Services Act had come and gone. The popular Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) had yet to be reauthorized. And despite early confidence by advocates that re-upping the Maternal, Infants and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) would be a bipartisan walk in the park, a philosophical divide in how much states should pay had left that program’s funding in limbo as well.

Operators of home visiting programs we spoke with were already preparing for layoffs, cuts to enrollment or even closure. Several states had already put out notices about freezes in children’s health insurance as the deadline to fund CHIP grew nearer.

So a new effort to keep families together had fallen by the wayside, and two major investments in the health of kids were in peril. Until February 9.

That day, with the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump signed into law a spending bill that kept the government open through late March. But in that short-term bill came years of investments for children and families. Included in the bill was Family First, and five-year reauthorizations for both CHIP and MIECHV.

Is that a responsible way to govern? Of course not, especially in the case of Family First, which is actually a new law that had not passed in the previous year as a standalone bill. But in an unprecedently divided political time, spending bills have emerged as the small opportunities to move anything with a general well of support.

Without question, the biggest story of 2019 in child welfare will be how things progress with the Family First Act. The Department of Health and Human Services has laid down some early groundwork in the waning months of 2018, but there is much to discuss in the nine months before the law takes effect.

Reunification Under 50

For the first time since federal data was collected on the subject, the number of youth who exit foster care to reunite with their families is less than half. The percentage of exits to reunification reached 49 percent on the 25th annual report produced from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, or AFCARS.

That is one of several indicators in the AFCARS report that the pathway to permanency from foster care is changing. Among the others:

Median time in care for foster youth: Twenty years ago, the median stay was 20.5 months. By 2015, that number had plummeted to 12.6 months. The median has ticked up for a second year in a row, now at 12.9 months.

Youth waiting for adoption: Up 23 percent since 2012. Meanwhile, the number of actual finalized adoptions is up 14 percent.

Shame at the Border

There has been a considerable discourse in the field of child welfare, including on The Chronicle’s pages, about the extent to which the Trump administration’s ill-fated family separation policy parallels our own domestic approach to child protection services. The argument for similarity hinges on the idea that some portion of removals to foster care are unnecessary.

But in YSI’s humble opinion, the reason for said unnecessary-ness is what separates the border policy as a true low point in this nation’s posture on human services. The reasons that a child could be removed to foster care, when less intrusion could do, might include bad casework, racial or socioeconomic biases, or just a lack of other options available within a certain child welfare system. All problematic, all in need of attention.

What happened at the border with family separation was deterrence, and nothing more. The Trump administration wants the next mom to turn around, or never come, because she knows she’ll lose her baby when she gets here. It is a dangerous precedent, and one we should bury forever. It should never again be the position of this country that the breakup of families is an asset to be used in policy bargaining.

Juvenile Justice Restored

For nearly a decade now, the push to renew the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has resembled the famous Peanuts scene where Lucy jerks the football away from Charlie Brown just as he’s about to kick it. Congress, usually the Senate, would move toward passing something, only to see it fall short.

In one of the last moves before the government shut down this month, the ball finally sailed through the uprights. Trump signed a five-year reauthorization of JJDPA, making the law current for the first time since 2007.

We’ll dive a bit more into what’s actually new in the bill next week, but suffice to say that JJDPA represents a basic level for the standards of care when youth are involved with the juvenile justice system. Don’t detain them because of status offenses; don’t lock them up anywhere near adults; try to address any racial disparities that exist in a juvenile system’s treatment of youth.

States adhere to these core requirements, for the most part, in exchange for a relatively small pot of federal funds. And for the first time in at least a decade, that arrangement has been stabilized in federal law.

So in the immortal words of fake President Josiah Bartlett, “What’s next?” Most of the advocacy and activism on juvenile justice is taking place on the state level, with movements afoot to raise the age, or close large juvenile facilities, or prevent certain teens from being transferred to adult court. But what’s the next priority for federal policy advocacy on juvenile justice?

A few half-baked guesses …

Racial and ethnic disparities: The Obama administration updated a lot of the JJDPA compliance rules on its way out the door, but left disproportionate minority contact (DMC) for the Trump administration to tackle. The Trump administration has indicated its intention to significantly alter the way the DMC requirement works, and we’re sure advocates will have a lot to say about it.

Education inside: The feds don’t have a lot of juice when it comes to local law enforcement, but there are some constitutional requirements around making education available to all children. Academics in confinement – the quality of it, and its valuation toward a diploma – have never been a huge point of policy on Capitol Hill.

Medicaid Reentry: The recently passed opioid bill, the SUPPORT Act, requires that states do not disenroll incarcerated youth from Medicaid. That keeps options open for better incorporation of Medicaid-payable services in the plans for a youth’s return to his or her community. But that’s hardly a guarantee, and federal support for re-entry planning could keep the momentum going.

Restorative justice: This is an area where advocates might find the most receptiveness from the Trump administration. OJJDP Administrator Caren Harp is a believer in the model, as she relayed to us in an interview over the summer:

What’s so appealing is the accountability. Offenders are face-to-face accountable to the victim. And in that process is where we find remorse, and a real change of direction in terms of their behaviors.

It can be a diversion program, it can be a sentence alternative with low-level offenders to help them accept harm they’ve caused and the responsibility to repair, and develop their decision-making skills. Even in a violent case, where there is no substitution for a correctional response, it can still be used to help offenders accept responsibility.

The focus of juvenile justice advocacy will surely remain on the state level, because that’s where the power resides. But JJDPA’s passage clears the deck a bit for other policy pursuits.

Faith-Based Fight Moves Federal

Since same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015, 10 states have legislated protection for faith-based child welfare agencies that wish to selectively choose clients based on their religious principles. Three of those 10 passed laws this year: Kansas, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the push for accepted discrimination jumped to the national scene in a meaningful way. First, a couple in Texas was denied a spot as foster parents for refugee children by a grantee managing a federal program. This was an extension of the federal government turning away someone willing to care for an orphaned refugee because they did not “mirror the Holy family.”

Later in the year, House appropriators incorporated a federal law that penalized states that took any adverse action against a faith-based child welfare operator related to discrimination. A bill to that effect had bumped around Congress with little action for years, but suddenly became a possibility when Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) got it into the spending bills. Aderholt is the co-chair of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a bicameral organization that works to engage congressional members on issues related to families, foster care and adoption.

The proliferation of these laws and policies in 2018, in our opinion, further increased the likelihood that this is going to end up in front of the Supreme Court someday soon. The legal test that seems in need of answering here is: If most or at least some of a state’s child welfare contractors are tolerant of same-sex and single parents who want to foster or adopt, then is it OK that certain grantees are not?

Or another way to come at it: If a state guaranteed the right of any foster or adoptive parent to seek licensure, can it permit some contractual actors to be discriminatory? That seems to be how Texas’ law on the subject was written. Faith-based providers are permitted to turn away a same-sex couple, but a provider that will serve them must exist within their service region or one adjacent to it.

We’ve asked a few LGBTQ rights leaders this year whether there is a way for state legislation to produce two winners here. These laws have all been about the faith-based groups only. What about something that guarantees protection from discrimination for same-sex foster and adoptive parents in the greater system, while also affording the ability to discriminate to some faith-based providers?

The contours of such a law would have to include some guarantee of proximity and reasonable access to providers, and a limitation on how many or what percent of the system’s contracts could go to discriminatory faith-based groups.

We found no support for such a compromise at this point, were it to be on the table. The preference, justifiably so, is to prevail in court and strike down these laws for good. But there’s a decent chance that the current Supreme Court would uphold these laws.


George Sheldon, 71, who led child welfare services for Florida, Illinois and the federal government during the Obama administration. Sheldon was respected by colleagues for his insistence that youth affected by the child welfare system have a place at the table.

“He was always focused on making sure that youth were involved,” said Don Winstead, a child welfare consultant who worked under Sheldon at Florida’s Department of Children and Families. “He set up youth groups to meet with him periodically, and hear about their concerns. And the things he learned about child welfare, he learned from them.”

Becky Weichhand, 36, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, who died of cancer last month. Weichhand helped to build the organization’s Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), and was celebrated as an unflinching champion by its alumni.

“She never thought twice about loving others, but she did think twice about how she loved,” said Keri Richmond, a friend and former participant in FYI. “She was the most intentional person in each of her relationships. Her impact and legacy are far-reaching because of the way she cared so authentically for others.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.