As implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act gradually rolls out, Los Angeles County anticipated that the move away from its special agreement on federal child welfare funding would mean an annual loss of more than $200 million. But legislation passed late last month could help them hold on to most of that money, for now.
The Family First Transition Act (FFTA), passed along with the last-minute spending bill signed into law in late December, includes new funding and regulatory changes that are aimed at helping states ease into implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act. The Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) estimates that the transition bill will provide nearly $300 million over the next two years.
“Without FFTA, our clients would have faced an abrupt end to such services when the waiver expired,” said Bobby Cagle, director of L.A.’s DCFS, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Now, thanks to the FFTA, we can take a more deliberative approach, and transition from the waiver to Family First over the next two years.”
The Family First Act, which passed in 2018, amends Title IV-E, a federal entitlement that previously matched state and local spending on foster care and adoptions. Under Family First, systems can also use the entitlement to pay for certain services aimed at preventing the need for foster care in some cases.
But before the law took effect in October of 2019, many state and county systems had special waivers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that allowed them to spend their IV-E dollars on a wider array of kids or services. Los Angeles has operated under a waiver since 2007, and Cagle said DCFS has invested in maltreatment prevention, as well as aftercare programs, family preservation and wraparound services.
In an April 2019 message to DCFS staff, Cagle said that since the IV-E waiver started, the department saw a 19 percent decrease in social worker caseloads and a 53 percent decrease in the average length of stay in foster care.
“The waiver has been instrumental in allowing our social workers to practice social work and truly engage with the family,” Cagle wrote in the April message to staff.
“[Counties operating under a waiver] are able to provide a broader array of prevention services under the waiver structure than they will be able to under the Family First structure,” said Cathy Senderling, deputy executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association (CWDA), in an email to The Chronicle. “Family First authorizes a more narrow set of services that are aimed at preventing placement into foster care, and are not necessarily aimed at preventing abuse and neglect.”
Under Family First, those jurisdictions that have been using waiver funding will have to grapple with how or if they will be able to continue to provide broader prevention-focused services, Senderling said.
All of the IV-E waivers ended concurrently with Family First taking effect in October of 2019. DCFS said that losses anticipated with the ending of the waiver program would have threatened funding to some of these services and could have led to a hiring freeze or reduction of staff at the agency, which would mean fewer social workers with higher caseloads serving the county’s some 30,000 children and teens in the system.
California, along with more than half the states in the country, has opted to delay implementing Family First until 2021.
In addition to Los Angeles, six other counties were operating under waivers when the program ended: Alameda, San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Sonoma. Collectively, these seven counties account for more than half of all foster youth in the state.
One of the Family First Transition Act’s three provisions grants California, and other states that had active IV-E waivers, a reprieve dealing with the funding changes. Per the new law, in fiscal year 2020, states can recoup 90 percent of funding that they can demonstrate they’ll lose without the waiver, and 75 percent in fiscal year 2021.
For Los Angeles County, leaders estimate this will be about $176 million in fiscal 2020 and $103 million in fiscal 2021. The law will also provide funding to help states implement Family First and eases up the restrictions on what prevention services Title IV-E funds can be used for.
Cagle has been among the most vocal leaders in the country lobbying for protection for systems with IV-E waivers. He and others had pushed for federal legislation that extend the waivers until 2021, which is the year all states had to comply with the Family First Act.
“The law overlooks the need for waiver jurisdictions to be able to transition to a new funding model,” Cagle wrote in a May 2019 op-ed in The Chronicle.
While a bill to extend the waivers was introduced in both chambers of Congress, the partial reimbursement plan for affected systems won out as the option included in the transition act.
In addition to the sweetener for former waiver systems, the Family First Transition Act creates a $500 million fund to help states implement the Family First Act. Allotments are to be made based on each state’s population of kids in care; California’s share will likely be over $50 million, with around $13.5 million going to Los Angeles County, according to DCFS.
The third provision of the law will be to ease up restrictions on which prevention services can be funded through IV-E. Per Family First, half of IV-E funded prevention services had to be supported by evidence, which proved challenging as few of these programs have seen rigorous research. The Family First Transition Act delays this part of the law by two years, and then phases it in over time.
“The type of really robust research required will be difficult to meet for many social services type programs because research isn’t typically done in that way and with that frequency in our field,” Senderling said. “Delaying the requirement … allows for more time to hopefully partner with academics and other research organizations to build up that base of research.”