Last week, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would allow scores of state and county child welfare agencies to delay implementing a new federal law that promises to reshape foster care.
Bobby Cagle, the director of Los Angeles County’s $2.6-billion child welfare agency, has been leading the effort to see the State Flexibility for Family Transitions Act introduced out of fear that L.A. would face a $200 million shortfall if forced to give up its federal spending waiver in September. Cagle, who spoke to The Chronicle on Wednesday from Capitol Hill in between meetings with key Congressional staff, said that he was hoping to see the legislation move quickly.
“We are looking at the best vehicle that moves it the fastest, so we don’t fall off that cliff,” Cagle said. “When you do something like this, you look for must-pass legislation you can attach it to.“
Clearly the next piece of “must-pass legislation” will be the spending bill that ends the now three-plus week long government shutdown.
The Feinstein-Rubio bill would extend the waivers through 2021. Since being first offered in 1996, more than half the states have opted into some variation of the Title IV-E Waiver Program. The IV-E waivers offered states flexibility in how they spent their federal foster care dollars in exchange for accepting a capped allocation.
Feinstein and Rubio’s legislation would allow L.A. and dozens more child welfare agencies throughout the country time to transition their complicated systems to the new mandates envisioned under the sweeping Family First Prevention Services Act, which was signed by President Trump last February. Family First radically alters how the federal entitlement that pays for foster care and adoption works. The law severely restricts federal funding for group homes, while allowing the entitlement – Title IV-E of the Social Security Act – to be spent on a whole new class of beneficiaries: parents who, without services and support, would lose their children to foster care.
Bent on retaining its waiver, L.A. County jumped into action soon after Family First became law. In the spring, Cagle and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors hired one of Family First’s architects – Becky Shipp, former Senate staffer and current vice president of the Sheridan Group – to lobby for legislation that would extend the waivers past their expiration date of Sept. 31, 2019. Cagle and Shipp have since aligned the six other California counties that use Title IV-E waivers, as well as key agencies in Florida and Ohio to join the effort. The investment has apparently paid off.
“We are encouraged that we have Rubio and Feinstein,” Cagle said. “What we know is that without an opportunity for a good plan to transition to Family First, there is a major funding cliff coming that translates to a loss of staff for L.A. County. One key aspect of child welfare that is not given its due is how much we need the people who do the work. If we have to cut that, it is going to develop into a major situation for children in L.A. County and I suspect other waiver jurisdictions as well.”
Cagle said he was going to spend part of Wednesday talking to key House members and staff who will be crucial in seeing the bill through. High on that list is Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior aide Wendell Primus, who was initially tepid on the idea of extending the waivers. “We have been working directly with Wendell and Speaker Pelosi,” Cagle said. “At this point they have really been a thought partner, and we are hopeful to bring him along as well.”
Another key player in the fate of Feinstein and Rubio’s waiver bill will be undoubtedly be Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the original co-sponsors of Family First.
“Staff is aware of the legislation and reviewing it,” said Nicole L’Esperance, a Senate Finance Committee press secretary for Wyden.
Mary Lee Allen of the Children’s Defense Fund voiced opposition to legislation that would extend the waivers in an interview last month.
“The Children’s Defense Fund is strongly opposed to extending the waivers,” Allen said. “Let’s invest that money to implement Family First so all states will benefit. What’s the rationale for targeting those funds to a select number of states?”
John Kelly contributed to this story.