Lead proponents of the Family First Prevention Services Act will not obtain the unanimous consent they sought for the bill before the summer recess. The earliest the bill can be taken up now is September, when the Senate reconvenes. The present version of the bill has already passed the House of Representatives.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who first developed the bill with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), issued a forceful statement urging passage of the bill in the fall.
“It’s the right policy for kids, and it’s the right policy for taxpayers, whose investments in foster care today aren’t helping children and families the way they should,” Wyden said, in a statement for the Congressional record that is posted on the Senate Finance Committee website.
The Family First Act would significantly change the federal IV-E entitlement, which currently reimburses states only for foster care services unless the state has obtained a waiver for other services. The current round of waivers to IV-E expire in 2019.
The bill, beginning in fiscal 2019, would permit states to receive federal IV-E support for three services aimed at preventing the need for foster care: substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and parenting assistance. States could tap into federal funds for those services for 12 months to help any family with a child deemed to be at “imminent risk” of entering foster care.
The act would also severely limit federal support for congregate care placements. State and county agencies would only receive general IV-E support on congregate care for the first two weeks of a placement, and would then have 30 days to assess and determine the need for further residential care at a qualified residential treatment program (QRTP), a new classification for which the bill sets basic standards and definitions. [Click here for a full breakdown of the bill.]
Family First has received wide support from child welfare advocacy groups and several key membership groups representing both community-based and residential providers, and has received support from state government in Illinois and Utah.
The bill was quickly introduced, marked up and passed through the House of Representatives in June, after which it moved to the Senate. There, Wyden and Hatch attempted to “hotline” Family First, a process by which unanimous consent is either achieved or the bill is stopped.
In the following weeks, several county- and state-level parties in California, New York, North Carolina and Washington asked their senators to hold the bill. The most prevalent objections revolved around the bill’s standards for QRTPs, and the short timeline for conducting individual assessments about the appropriateness of congregate care for any child.
In his statement, Wyden said that bill sponsors and staff at the Department of Health and Human Services “have made it abundantly clear that there is significant flexibility in these provisions of the bill,” in particular the requirement that any QRTP have licensed clinical and nursing staff on site during business hours and on call 24 hours a day.
“With respect to child welfare law, there is no statutory or regulatory definition for what constitutes ‘licensed clinical and nursing staff,’ Wyden said. “A wide variety of models could be used to meet these criteria.”
Opponents of the bill said promises to work on changes after passage were not sufficient. From an op-ed by Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California:
We cannot accept this deeply flawed bill as it is, nor can we accept a legislative process that jams it through without fixing it first. Promises of fixes in future legislation are not enough: There is no doubt that Family First would have negative consequences for children and relative caregivers nationwide if passed in its current form. Promises of possible flexibility in administrative regulations to implement the law are also not enough: The concerns raised above are statutory, and the bill gives the executive branch flexibility on only some of these issues. Add the uncertainty around the current election cycle, and it becomes very clear that banking on the next administration to fix these issues is unwise.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the prevention aspects of Family First would cost $1.3 billion over ten years, and that the restrictions on congregate care would save $910 million in the same time frame.
New York’s Office of Children and Family Services projected a loss of $215 million in federal funding for congregate care; California did not issue a specific projection. The Dallas Morning News reported this week that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is projecting an annual loss of $31.5 million in federal congregate care funding.
Wyden pointed out in his statement that Texas recently lost a class-action lawsuit in which the judge noted troubling findings concerning the state’s group homes. From Wyden’s statement:
The U.S. District judge who wrote the decision directed the state to stop placing certain children in unsafe settings such as foster group homes that lack 24-hour supervision. At question was whether group homes should continue to operate at all, given concerns that they cause “an unreasonable risk of harm” to foster children. The Court heard testimony that in foster group homes that mix younger children with older children, sexual abuse “is usual rather than unusual.”
The Chronicle has confirmed that more than one senator has placed a hold on the bill. No senator has publicly taken responsibility for one.
Wyden and other bill sponsors will now have the summer to work with any objectors on potential changes, or seek a full Senate vote, which may be difficult in a legislative year shortened and influenced by the upcoming presidential election.
In his statement, Wyden said “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.”