Bipartisan Bill in House Would Eliminate Foster Care Income Test, Ease Move Toward Family First Act

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Photo courtesy of California State University-Dominguez Hills.

A renewed effort to amend federal foster care funding rules, and nudge states toward a recently passed reform package, has gained its first Republican endorsement.

A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives will put forth a bill that would eliminate the link between federal foster care payments and an income eligibility test from the mid-1990s, and seek to ease the transition into the Family First Prevention Services Act for states.

“Far too often, Congress passes landmark legislation without supplemental funding to ensure effective implementation,” said bill co-author Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), co-author of the Family First Transition and Support Act of 2019 and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, in a statement issued today. “Without this piece of legislation that we introduced today, the benefits expected from the bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act will either not be fully realized or not realized in a timely way. There are too many families and children who are relying on us to get this right.”

The bill pairs with one introduced earlier in April by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), both members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The House version includes this effort’s first Republican co-sponsor: Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), whose home state is among the dozen or so most likely to implement the law on time in October.

“One of my priorities after the [Family First Act] was signed into law, was to ensure proper implementation of the provisions in the bill,” said Bacon, who is also a co-chair on the foster youth caucus, in the statement. “This includes a smooth transition for providers and state agencies, and fixes to any unintended consequences due to the roll-out.”

The Family First Act was passed in February of 2018, and will enable states to use the Title IV-E entitlement – previously reserved for foster care and adoption support – to fund services aimed at working with parents without the need for a family separation. Those services must be evidence-based and apply to three areas: parenting, substance abuse treatment and mental health interventions.

At the same time, the law restricts federal funds for the placement of foster youth in group homes and other “congregate care” options. States will only be able to draw funds for such placements for two weeks, with exceptions for programs that serve some niche populations and for accredited providers using trauma-informed, clinical models. Even in those cases, a judge will need to periodically approve the need for continued use of a congregate care facility.

States have the option to delay on the congregate care limitations until October 2021, but cannot use IV-E for the foster care prevention services until the delay ends.

Final legislative text was not available at press time for the House bill, but Bass spokesperson Zach Seidl told The Chronicle of Social Change it would be identical to the Senate’s version. You can click here for The Chronicle’s analysis of the Stabenow-Brown bill. Among the provisions in both:

  • A temporary boost in family preservation funding, and new allowable uses including assistance with housing, transportation or financial support to relatives temporarily caring for kids while the Family First Act prevention services are administered.
  • Eased restrictions on which evidence-based programs can be funded using the Family First Act funds.
  • A short-term federal program to help fund foster home recruitment and the licensing and accreditation of qualified residential treatment programs and therapeutic foster homes.

Both bills propose to end the connection between Title IV-E foster care payments and the poverty standard in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal welfare program that in 1996 was replaced with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. IV-E foster care payments are only provided to states if the family the child is removed from meets the poverty standard in AFDC.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) is the first Republican to join legislation aimed at easing state transition to the Family First Prevention Services Act. “One of my priorities after the [Family First Act] was signed into law, was to ensure proper implementation of the provisions in the bill,” Bacon said. Photo courtesy of Bacon’s office.
The presence of an income threshold on foster care support has long been derided by child welfare advocates, and more than a dozen attempts have been made to repeal or replace it. An identical income test on federal funds for adoption subsidies is being gradually phased out; the new Family First Act services to prevent foster care have no income requirement.

Dropping the IV-E income test without any form of cost neutralizing change would significantly increase federal spending on foster care placements. In part, due to the income eligibility standards, many states only receive federal IV-E funding for less than 25 percent of kids in foster care.

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office provided the Senate Finance Committee with a review of 14 different attempts to repeal or replace the IV-E income eligibility scheme. Click here to read those ideas.

Bass and Bacon were joined on the bill by Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). Lawrence and Langevin are also co-chairs of the foster youth caucus.

Note: This story was updated on May 10, 2019.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at