New Funding for Counsel Now, Big Child Welfare Savings Later

Kudos to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) for the new IV-E policy change allowing states to claim reimbursement for parents’ and children’s representation. It shows great foresight and will generate many benefits.

First and foremost, the policy change lays the groundwork for thousands and thousands of children and their parents to succeed in their cases. Better representation means they will be represented by attorneys who effectively communicate with them, follow best practices in representing them in court, and appropriately hold the agency accountable. Children who are removed from home will be more likely to be placed with relatives or in the best placement possible. Parents will have better chances of obtaining services that will help them overcome their problems. Families will be less likely to be unnecessarily separated.

As a result, case outcomes will be better, and they will happen faster. More parents will be able to accomplish reunifications, and the children involved will more likely be able to grow up with their own families.

In recent years, improved representation of children and parents has produced better case outcomes, including higher family reunification rates and faster case resolutions. A 2010-11 study found that implementation of Washington state’s multidisciplinary Parents Representation Program produced a 36.5 percent increase in the rate of reunification, and Mark Courtney’s 2011 evaluation of the program, published in Children and Youth Services Review, found children experienced accelerated times to permanency.

Washington’s legislature funded expansion of the program based on its improved outcomes and consequent savings (it is now implemented statewide, with 9,500 ongoing cases.)

States such as Colorado and Oregon are implementing Washington’s approach, and a number of other states are considering doing so. These programs, which have been wholly funded by state funds, institute equal justice by covering all indigent parents involved in dependency and termination cases in the jurisdiction. The model is multidisciplinary, ensuring separate high quality contract attorneys for each parent, and also provides social worker services and parent advocates.

Joanne Moore, director of the Office of Public Defense for Washington. Photo courtesy of Moore.

In 2013, Oregon replicated the Washington program for parents in a two-county pilot program; subsequently, improved case outcomes saved so much money it could soon use them to fund a third county as well. Oregon is now planning to expand the program into an additional five counties, based on its proven outcomes: preservation of families whenever possible, expedited permanency and reduced foster care.

When case outcomes improve, how much are governments saving? ACF and the states spend a variety of funding amounts on maintenance payments for foster care, adoption subsidies and guardianship payments.

But one thing is clear: due to upcoming reunification increases and accelerated case resolutions, federal and state funds spent on maintenance payments can be expected to significantly decrease. Most maintenance payments are split between federal IV-E funds and state general funds. When removal is found to be unnecessary due to prevention interventions, these publicly funded maintenance costs are never incurred. In cases where children in foster care are reunified with their parents, IV-E maintenance costs stop at that point.

Though the amounts vary, foster care, adoption subsidies and guardianship subsidies now involve hundreds or even thousands per month per IV-E eligible child. The subsidies are costly, but they’re extremely important, of course, for children who are not able to reunify with their families.

Nearly 250,000 youth exited foster care in 2017, according to federally collected data. While 121,203 were reunified, 83,333 were adopted or placed in guardianships, and 19,945 were in long-term care until emancipated that year. For almost all the children who are not reunified, maintenance payments easily can last an additional 10-12 years or more.

With improved representation, IV-E maintenance payments will continue to be saved annually rather than spent for each of the children who are reunified instead of adopted, placed in guardianships or remain in long-term care. The 10- to 12-year ongoing accrual of these avoided costs could be conservatively expected to keep increasing each year, then level out at a total 10-12 times the original year’s amount, or more.

In 2018, ACF was scheduled to spend more than $8.5 billion on foster care and permanency. As the new IV-E change is implemented to improve legal representation for children and parents across the country, we can expect to see maintenance costs decrease, helping to offset the new IV-E reimbursements.

These are just some of the immediate positive impacts of ACF’s policy change. The myriad long-term benefits for children and families will be enormous as more and more families are able to succeed.

Congratulations to ACF for implementing this cost-effective change that promotes our shared child welfare goals. It’s a big, big winner.

Joanne Moore is the director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense.

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WEBINAR ALERT!

TOMORROW: Learn more about the federal rule change to provide legal representation to children and parents involved in the child welfare system in our exclusive webinarA New Era of Funding Family Justice, with Leslie Heimov and Vivek Sankaran on Feb. 21st. Hosted by John Kelly, Editor-in-Chief for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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