Senate Finance Committee leadership plans to meld several major child welfare financing shifts into one bill called the Families First Act (FFA).
The act, which will be introduced next year, would likely mark the biggest change in federal child welfare policy since the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act in 1980.
We have heard rumblings about the pending legislation for weeks now, and normally, Youth Services Insider loathes reporting on bills that have not been introduced with the full language. Too often, in our opinion, the fine print matters.
But based mostly on Beltway discussions and a memo circulated by Finance staff, FFA already has the support of at least 33 child welfare advocacy groups.
We’ll go more in depth on this soon, but here is what YSI knows about Families First thus far:
IV-E for Families
The act would for the first time permit states to use Title IV-E reimbursement to help keep families in crisis together or reunify. These services would have a 12-month clock, after which federal IV-E funds cease.
The IV-E foster care entitlement – by far the largest federal child welfare expenditure at about $4 billion per year – is currently structured only to support foster care placements. Many believe that guarantee of federal support for foster care leads to unnecessary use of those placements.
Heretofore, the only way to use IV-E outside of the foster care realm has been through a waiver process overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. Those waivers run out in 2019, which is when the changes in this bill would take effect.
The structure is likely to mirror what Wyden has proposed in the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act of 2015.
Congregate Care Limits
The act would put the kibosh on federal funds for group care after a two-week period. The fine print will likely include a lot of exceptions to this that exempts health-related placements and settings that enable siblings to stay together.
But beyond the exceptions, agencies will only have federal support for group homes for 14 days. The distinction between foster home and group home, by the way, will probably be the presence of six or more foster youth in one home.
There has been a year of dialogue on Capitol Hill about the appropriate role of congregate care in foster care; or more to the point, how much the federal government should support its use.
One view, championed by Hatch, was to draw a line in the sand and limit funds for group care. He favored a one-year limit for older teens, and a ban on congregate care for younger children in the system. Others favored an approach that did not set limits, but required systems to demonstrate the need for group care placement to a judge.
As is true of Wyden’s existing legislative plan, the newly allowed front-end services in IV-E will not be restricted by an income test. But the foster care reimbursements will continue to be contingent on a 1996 income test that most child welfare advocates agree is, at best, outdated.
We could see this provision drawing an equal amount of cheers and jeers. Nobody really likes the income test on IV-E foster care, so it’s doubtful anyone will clamor for an inclusion of that test on the front end.
But one child welfare observer already voiced concern to YSI that having an income test on foster care and not on preservation could flip the whole “perverse incentive” conundrum around. Right now, IV-E could be seen as incentivizing foster care. Would the opposite be true in this new scheme? And is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
The time-limited family preservation services allowed in Title IV-B, a far smaller non-entitlement account, will essentially become part of the IV-E entitlement.
Meanwhile, time limits will be family reunification funding under IV-B. The bill will also establish a capped, mandatory account exclusively for helping families in crisis situations.
The act combines legislative initiatives championed by Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and ranking minority member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Wyden has pushed for greater federal investment in preventing the need for foster care, while Hatch is interested in limiting the use of congregate care for kids in the system. Both men have been supportive of the other’s child welfare policy goals in recent years, and will now present a united front.
As mentioned, Families First already has support from nearly three dozen organizations that we know about, and a bill hasn’t even been produced yet. Among the supporters who signed onto a support letter penned by First Focus: The Mockingbird Society, the Juvenile Law Center, and Kentucky Youth Advocates.
YSI will be very interested to see where the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities comes down on this one. The Alliance represents hundreds of child welfare providers, including many organizations that provide congregate care.
The Alliance had put its own finance reform plans on the back burner to support Wyden’s original legislation this year. Will it support something with at least one severe regulation of group settings?
Significant Price Tag
We’re hearing the bill will likely score in the billions when the Congressional Budget has fully analyzed it. So while Families First will have support from two powerful Senators, getting this through the House of Representatives will be a tall task.