How the 2014 Elections Might Impact Federal Child Welfare Policy

Given the non-representative electorate that turned out to vote on November 4, we can debate whether the 2014 midterms were a “wave” election or not, but unquestionably they resulted in big victories for the Republican Party in Congress. When the last few races are called, Republicans will likely have added over a dozen seats to their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing their advantage to over 60 seats in that body. Even more importantly, Republicans dominated the contested U.S. Senate races and will take control of that chamber in January.

With control over both houses of Congress and the belief that the public supports their positions on everything from health care to fiscal policy, Republicans are almost certainly going to make the last two years of the Obama presidency a grind. In fact, the conflict could start even before the GOP officially takes over the Senate majority, as there are ongoing discussions within the party about whether or not to shut down the government in protest against Obama’s immigration policies.

After that, we can expect continued fights over health care, federal spending, taxes, social programs, and entitlements. The outcome of a number of these battles could significantly impact children and families served by our country’s child welfare system.

Let’s start with the Affordable Care Act. Despite the ACA’s sluggish rollout, it has been tremendously beneficial to at-risk children and families. The law extended eligibility for Medicaid to millions of vulnerable families while allowing foster youth who age out of the child welfare system to remain on Medicaid until age 26.

When fully implemented, the mental health parity provisions of the law should ensure that all children who have experienced trauma and are suffering from mental health challenges – especially children who have been abused or neglected – will receive better treatment. Repeal, replacement, or interference with the ACA, for which Republicans continue to advocate, would jeopardize these hard-won victories for children and families.

We should also expect a return to budget brinksmanship. As they didn’t suffer any long-term political repercussions for shutting down the government last year, the Republican Party will surely be further emboldened to play budgetary hardball.

Congress will almost certainly seek further federal spending reductions and could very well try to replace the defense cuts scheduled to go into effect next year via sequestration with increased cuts to social service programs.

Critical programs supporting child welfare services will be in the crosshairs and could see their funding levels cut, including:

  • Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), which House Republicans have already tried to eliminate
  • Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act programs (CAPTA)
  • Title IV-B Child Welfare Services
  • Promoting Safe and Stable Families
  • Juvenile Justice Programs

Entitlements will also be targeted, especially with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) expected to assume chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. In his previous role as Budget Committee Chairman, Ryan proposed transforming Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) into block grants.

With a Congressional majority, he will probably resurrect those proposals. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll be less aggressive towards the foster care entitlement, and the Title IV-E foster care entitlement could very well be next.

That brings us to federal child welfare finance reform. For more than 20 years, the children’s advocacy community has been pushing Congress to enact finance reform despite the fact that there continues to be disagreement about what that “reform” should actually look like. Alarmingly, a number of advocates have expressed a willingness to sacrifice the IV-E Foster Care entitlement structure in favor of a capped allocation of funds with increased flexibility.

I have written before about the dangers of block grants and the short-sightedness inherent in these proposals. Yet the advocacy community continues to drift in that direction. Most recently, a proposal from the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), and National Organization of State Associations for Children (NOSAC) would merge IV-E, IV-B, and CAPTA into one capped program and index it to inflation.

This may produce increased funding for child welfare services in the short-term, and it would certainly give states and counties more flexibility in how they use federal funds. But transforming these programs into a faceless block grant – funding to states, rather than children or families – would virtually guarantee that over the long-term, funding would be targeted by budget-cutters.

Despite the sense of urgency being created by some advocates, my view is that now would be an incredibly foolish time to ask Congress to design and pass a comprehensive reform of child welfare financing. In the current political and fiscal environment, any viable proposal would at a minimum have to be budget-neutral. Our nation’s child welfare systems are severely underfunded already, and there is simply no way to pass budget-neutral finance reform without seriously compromising the continuum of care.

Budget neutrality can only be achieved by robbing Peter to pay Paul. For example, most budget-neutral proposals put forth by advocates thus far seek to bolster the front-end by providing new funds to prevention and early intervention services, but finance that investment by redirecting funds away from out-of-home placement, undermining the ability of the system to provide appropriately for children who have to be placed in out-of-home care.

Yes, the erosion of federal funding for child welfare due to outdated income restrictions (known as the “look-back”) is a serious problem. But we don’t have to give up the protections provided to foster children by the entitlement in order to address that problem. The GAO produced a report just a couple of years ago that identified a number of ways to “de-link” and stave off future funding decreases in a cost-neutral manner.

If the advocacy community is determined to address this root problem in the short term, they should ask Congress to take action on the look-back now and save further reform of Title IV-E for a better political and fiscal atmosphere. Our role as advocates is to push Congress to better serve the children and families we’ve devoted our careers to supporting. I spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer, and child welfare advocates are the only group who ever came in and asked me to fix a problem without providing any new funding.

That has to stop. We’ve known for decades that the existing system is under-funded, and new research has demonstrated that substantiated child maltreatment is actually three to four times more prevalent than most of us ever imagined. This finding should inspire us reexamine our most basic assumptions about the adequacy of our child protection response and the needs of our system.

At a minimum, we should stop saying we can do reform for free. Rather than charging ahead with sweeping reform, we need to spend the next two years fixing what we can, building the case for more resources, and building a coalition to pursue reforms that will actually better serve children and families.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant with Social Change Partners, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer. 

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About Sean Hughes 7 Articles
Spent 10 years on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Staffer; helped write and pass the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008; member of Child Welfare League of America Government Affairs team; founder of Hughes Consulting and Strategic Planning, provide policy consulting to clients in child welfare and related areas