Family First Act Never Escaped the Peter-Paul Perception

In the turbulent seven-month journey of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which died when the 114th Congress went home for the holidays on Friday, only three members of Congress ever publicly criticized the bill.

Two did so at its first hearing in June. One did so in the waning days of the legislative calendar last week. And they all used the same phrase in their critique: “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” a saintly reference to stealing from one virtuous party to help another virtuous party.

The early objectors, who ultimately voted for Family First anyway, were Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee: Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Jim McDermott, a longtime champion of child welfare issues from Washington.

Doggett was an early partner with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on the prevention side of the legislation, back when Wyden was pushing a standalone bill with billions in new spending aimed at helping systems intervene with at-risk families without using foster care.

Doggett used the House Ways and Means Committee markup to lament the smaller scope of the prevention services, and the fact that the bill wouldn’t take effect until 2019 while the country was facing an opioid crisis today.

He also objected to the fact that the bill balanced new spending on prevention services with a cut in federal funds for adoption subsidies, which was accomplished by delaying a provision of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act that gradually removes income tests on federal adoption assistance.

This, Doggett said, was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

McDermott, who helped craft Fostering Connections, was equally pissed that Family First kicked the can down the road on adoption subsidies.

“I think prevention services are important,” he said at the Ways and Means markup, “but we cannot pay for it by taking from Peter to pay Paul.”

In doing so, McDermott said, Family First was “saying, ‘We can take $900 million out of [adoption assistance] and it won’t make any difference. And the group we’re picking on is the most vulnerable of all children, two- and three-year-olds.”

There was nobody pushing for the delay in adoption subsidy money; that was indeed included only to pay for the legislation’s prevention services. It is worth noting, though, that Family First had the support of virtually every national adoption advocacy group in the country.

On the subject of cuts to congregate care, the gentlemen differed. Doggett said congregate care is something “we need to phase out of.” But he did note that his home state of Texas is, like much of the country, suffering from a lack of foster homes.

McDermott didn’t exactly defend group settings, but predicted that cutting back federal participation in that world would have the opposite effect of Hatch’s intention.

“Let me tell you what will happen in congregate care,” McDermott said at the markup. “States running congregate care facilities will no longer get the money, but they’ll keep running the facilities.”

That, he argues, jeopardizes any ability of Congress to hold those facilities to a high standard.

“You can’t change standards if they’re not getting the [federal] money,” McDermott said.

So Doggett was supportive of limiting federal spending on congregate care, and McDermott believed reducing federal spending would not reduce congregate use.

But critics of Family First cited both men, and borrowed their turn of phrase, to describe the bill’s congregate care provisions as the Peter to prevention’s Paul. From a column by Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the California County Welfare Directors Association, which opposed the bill alongside a coalition of private and public organizations in California:

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Family First will save the federal government $910 million over the next 10 years, because states will be unable to meet the new group home rules it contains.

As Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) noted about Family First, ‘all this money is taken from another program,’ calling it ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’

Fast forward to December. As Family First’s supporters pushed for the bill’s attachment to two larger pieces of legislation moving in the final days of the 114th Congress, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) voiced his opposition of the bill. Until this point he had never mentioned a problem with the bill.

But he intervened to halt Family First after a social media campaign against the bill – launched by the Baptist Children’s Home of North Carolina – flooded his office and those of other North Carolina legislators with phone calls. It was not the first time Burr had heard from home on the bill; the state sent him a letter over the summer urging opposition.

Last week a Huffington Post article, blurring the line between journalism and advocacy, singled Burr out as the lone holdout on Family First (the article was followed with an online petition in support of the bill).

Burr shot back an op-ed defending his position:

The legislation is concerning because it eliminates group care in nearly all cases. While this seems intuitive in the effort to focus on families, it neglects the unfortunate truth that there are not enough families who are willing and able to take on the responsibility of caring for a foster child, and not all children can safely be placed with a family.

Worse, in order to pay for the legislation overall, it diverts money from within the foster care system by eliminating funding for group homes across the country. In short, it robs Peter to pay Paul, where Peter and Paul are both vulnerable foster kids. That’s completely unfair.

We asked Burr’s communications director, Becca Watkins, whether there was a fix that could sway Burr to support Family First. He argued in his op-ed that congregate was often a best-case option for sibling groups, which shouldn’t be true since the Fostering Connections Act has required systems to keep siblings together since 2008.

Perhaps an exception to permit federal funds for congregate placements of siblings would change his mind? Or, we asked, did Burr flat-out oppose restrictions on the federal funds for congregate care?

Watkins told us Burr’s op-ed was “what we have on the record at this time.”

As evidenced by the sentiments expressed by McDermott and Burr, there is disagreement on what the effect of the congregate care limitations would be. McDermott believes Family First wouldn’t put any program out of business, but would cost the feds oversight on how they are run.

In a column for The Chronicle, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said the congregate care exceptions for “Quality Residential Treatment Programs” included in the bill rendered the limitations toothless.

State and county leaders in California, North Carolina and New York said the opposite. Both states argued that they had downsized and improved standards on congregate care already, reforms based on a steady level of financial participation by the federal government. If Family First was to pass, those states made it clear that it would fall to counties to either make up the difference or lose congregate care space.

Ultimately, Family First never escaped the perception that it was looting federal money from congregate care for the express purpose of pumping that money into front-end services to prevent the need for foster care. But in reality, Family First began as a marriage between the policy goals of two Senators on the Finance Committee.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was pushing legislation to open up the IV-E entitlement for a large array of prevention services. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wanted to cut off pretty much all federal support for congregate care of children under the age of 13, and make it really hard to get federal dollars for older kids as well.

Both senators made concessions that limit the scope of their policy ambitions to make the bill politically viable. And without that package deal, it is unlikely a bill that expanded entitlement spending on one end without cuts elsewhere would have been taken seriously by the Republican-led House.

For those who support the prevention-oriented items in Family First, there is perhaps some encouragement to find going forward in that the most vocal opponent was a Republican fighting against a spending cut. Burr closed his op-ed by saying “a more sensible approach would acknowledge the role both play, while always keeping what is best for kids in mind.”

The flip side of the coin is that for those who support the bill’s reduced role for group settings in child welfare, the rejection of Family First is cause for more worry. If a powerful Republican leading an effort to cut federal spending can’t sell limits on congregate care, it is not clear who can.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1118 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

1 Comment

  1. So where does that leave congregate care as a working model?(tic toc January 2017) Every politician should know as every foster families knows; There are not enough foster homes, not enough willing families and many kids have mental health challenges extreme enough to not get their needs met in a home. When we can create a system that can be tailored to the individual child and not as a “one size fits all” expectation we might have some progress.

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