The Family First Act Deserves Full Senate Vote in the Fall

The Senate has adjourned for the summer, and with them has departed the chance at a seamless path to passage for the Family First Preservation Services Act, a significant reform of the front and back end of the federal IV-E entitlement.

In one of Youth Services Insider’s many columns in the past week about the bill, we mused that, surely, leaders on the bill would seek a floor vote in September if they could not achieve unanimous consent. Not likely, said one child welfare advocate with experience on the hill, for two reasons:

  • Child welfare is a low priority in the grand scheme of things for Senate leadership.
  • The Senate process is slow, which makes floor time a precious commodity during an election-shortened fall session.

After watching the arguments shape for and against the bill, YSI respectfully submits that it would be a travesty to not put this bill to a full Senate vote in the fall. This bill should pass, or fail, based on the judgment of all Senators, and after a long enough period of time that interested parties in their states can weigh in.

Family First seems to have been stopped in the Senate due to pressure from state-and county-level stakeholders in the two states – California and New York – that stand to lose the most from change. Both states’ child welfare agencies successfully pushed their senators to hold the bill up, and those holds stopped the effort to secure unanimous consent for the Family First Preservation Services Act.

Both states, along with Washington State later in the process, enumerated several objections they had to the bill’s limitations on congregate care. All of them can basically be boiled down to a central thesis, and here it is:

We already know congregate care should be used sparingly; we have already adjusted our continuum to reflect that, and this bill jeopardizes our ability to fund that continuum.

It is a perfectly reasonable line of argument, and it is the reason that federal reform of any entitlement is an adventure in uphill skiing. Whether or not those states are correct – that their array of congregate care options is of the right quantity and quality – might come up if the leaders on the bill take a second crack at it in the fall.

And on a more fundamental level, the current IV-E structure was protected by its two biggest consumers. Nobody receives more money through the current IV-E structure than California ($1.2 billion in 2014) and New York ($410 million).

Not surprising, right? California is home to more than twice the foster youth of any state, and New York is third on that list behind Texas. But according to federal data from 2014, that doesn’t completely encompass how much more IV-E money the two states use when compared with the rest of the country.

In 2014, California accounted for 13.7 percent of the country’s foster youths, and 27 percent of all federal IV-E dollars. The state received $20,666 for every foster youth, a full $2,000 more per kid than second place Ohio.

New York accounted for 5.4 percent of the nation’s foster youth, and 9.4 percent of IV-E dollars. It’s federal IV-E draw per foster youth is just behind Ohio, at $18,301.

So setting aside any judgment of where those dollars go, it’s not really all that surprising for a state to oppose federal reform that would take it from the top of the IV-E pile to … who knows? California never put an official figure on what they stood to lose from the congregate care limitations. New York said $215 million, although more than one insider close to that system said that estimate is nonsensically high.

Clearly, objectors in both states believe they have a good system, or are at least a plan for one, and that there was at least a chance said system would be fiscally damaged by Family First reforms. This is a completely appropriate way for government to work, that Senators would hear from supporters and opponents about how such a reform would impact things before acting.

But the judgment of those senators, and the interests of those state and local parties, should not decide the fate of an attempt at national reform of federal child welfare finance. The votes of those Senators should matter no more, or less, than those from states who stand to gain the most from a shift in IV-E structure.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), who authored Family First with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said in a statement yesterday that “if this bill were to come before the Senate in an up-or-down vote, I believe it would sail through on a bipartisan basis.”

YSI isn’t so sure. Yes, in a quick attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent, only a few states pushed publicly to stop it, and a few holds were placed on it. But given the rest of August and at least some of September, you can bet several other state advocates and agencies will assess what the bill means.

More than anything, the summer push for Family First made two things clear about the bill: Everyone wants IV-E funding to prevent the use of foster care, but it has a rather unique set of proponents and objectors when it comes to the limits on congregate care. New York’s state and county agencies pushed hard against the bill while the leader of its most visible residential program vigorously supported it.

The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, with hundreds of residential care providers within its ranks, emerged as one of the act’s most vocal and visible champions. And Richard Wexler, one of the nation’s most ardent critics of the overuse of foster care and congregate care in particular, came out firmly against the bill.

All of this points, in our humble opinion, to the same conclusion. Family First is a bipartisan child welfare reform bill, carefully negotiated to have impact and a passable price tag. It is also about more than just child welfare. It is a bill that could change the way we respond to drug addiction, mental illness and parenting deficits. It might also change how counties deal with the behavioral problems of youth, which we often forget is not the true purview of a system charged with protecting kids from abusive and neglectful adults.

That Family First would have an impact seems to be unchallenged; the virtue of that impact is clearly debatable. And that is exactly what it deserves from the Senate: a debate, and a vote, on the floor.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1115 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

1 Comment

  1. Currently, children who require a higher level of psychiatric care, due to unsafe behaviors and emotional instability, can’t get a QRTC admission unless their parents have personal wealth and superior health insurance coverage. Since the recession and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on a wide array of health coverage options, the majority of lower snd middle class parents are directed to CPS to access intensive options and suplemental funding. Instead of assistance, families lose their kids to state custody along with decision-making authority. Many loss parental rights too. They are humiliated, processed as neglectful or abusive, and many never see their troubled child again. This immoral, dangerous and harmful pattern must end. The Family First Prevention Services Act is expected to help good, healthy parents access proficient, responsive treatment for their sick kids without forfeiting custody. To me, that is a start in the right direction.

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