The U.S. Children’s Bureau has approved Arkansas’s plan under the Family First Prevention Services Act, which will enable the state to draw down federal funds for services aimed at preventing the use of foster care in certain child welfare cases.
“This is a big step in the right direction for children and families in Arkansas. This plan is grounded in a commitment to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to strengthen families,” said Department of Human Services Secretary Cindy Gillespie, in a statement released by the state yesterday. “The plan represents a profound re-thinking of the way child welfare agencies serve children and families.”
The Family First Act, which was passed in 2018 and mostly took effect in October, allows states to use the Title IV-E entitlement for a list of evidence-based services for mental health, substance abuse or parenting. The change marks a significant expansion of IV-E, which was previously reserved for foster care and adoption costs.
The law also limits federal funding for congregate care, meaning group homes and institutions. States can only get federal dollars for those congregate care placements for two weeks, although the law carves out some notable exceptions for pregnant or parenting teens, older youth in extended care, victims of sex trafficking and accredited residential treatment settings.
Arkansas saw the number of youth in its care jump from 3,806 in 2014 to 4,902 in 2018, according to data collected for The Chronicle of Social Change‘s annual Who Cares project. During that time, an analysis of the state system by consulting group Hornby Zeller Associates found that 22 percent of youth taken into foster care should have been left with their families.
Last year, the number of youth in care fell back down to 4,095.
“This plan highlights the enormous progress DCFS has made in the care of our foster children and in reuniting families,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), in the statement.
Arkansas is just the fourth child welfare agency to receive approval for prevention services under the law. Washington, D.C.’s plan was approved in late October, Utah was approved in December, and Maryland was approved in February.
In addition to D.C., Arkansas and Utah, the other systems that plan to implement Family First this year are Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
States were permitted to delay the congregate care limitations in Family First until 2021, but forfeit the ability to draw in foster care prevention funds during that time frame. Seven states have notified the U.S. Children’s Bureau of plans to delay on Family First until 2020, and an additional 32 states plan to delay until 2021.
Update: This article was amended to reflect that Arkansas publicly announced its approval before Maryland, but Maryland was approved first and is the third child welfare system to clear its Family First plan.