Waiver Push Uncertain as Family First Implementation Looms

In April, members of Los Angeles County’s powerful Board of Supervisors hosted a lobbying event on the House side of Capitol Hill.

During an hour-long panel discussion with likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Tony Cardenas and Judy Chu (both California Democrats), L.A. officials expressed their desire to retain a decade-old federal waiver that has been a financial boon to the county’s $2.6-billion Department of Children and Family Services.

The move immediately put the Supervisors and their newish child welfare chief, Bobby Cagle, at odds with beltway child welfare advocates and influential Hill staffers who were still busy celebrating the most significant reform to child welfare financing in a generation.

On Nov. 29, 2017, Bobby Cagle was sworn in as the director of L.A. County’s child welfare system, the largest in the nation. Photo courtesy of L.A. Department of Children and Family Services

Only two months earlier, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which dramatically alters how states are reimbursed through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the federal entitlement that has hitherto paid for foster care and adoptive services. Family First’s marquee change is conferring the entitlement to a new class of beneficiaries: parents in acute danger of losing their children to foster care. It also severely restricts federal payments to group homes in most circumstances.

Attendees of the April event say that the panel’s moderator Wendell Primus, a senior Pelosi staffer and one of the key players behind Family First’s passage, told the L.A. County delegation that extending the waiver was unlikely. Beyond the fact that doing so would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, many insiders see such a move as counterproductive to the goals of Family First.

“The Children’s Defense Fund is strongly opposed to extending the waivers,” said CDF Policy Director Mary Lee Allen in a recent interview. “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?”

Since 1996, when the Title IV-E waiver was first implemented, more than half of the states have voluntarily opted in. Twenty-six states, the District of Columbia and one Native American tribe operated a waiver this year, most of which expire in September of 2019.

The program was originally designed to test new strategies to improve the child welfare system, but this more narrow focus was broadened in subsequent reauthorizations. Jurisdictions that opted in agreed to a cap on federal funds, but were given flexibility in how they spent the money – something some local child welfare leaders have grown to like.

Now they see the door closing, and a handful of jurisdictions are clamoring for a multi-year extension.

Beyond opposition from influential child welfare advocates, doing so would also require convincing many of the very same lawmakers and Hill staff who got Family First passed to go along with the plan. One source called this an “uphill battle,” considering the limited attention that child welfare issues receive on the Hill, and the fact that the effort is read by many as resistance to the new law.

Despite these headwinds, L.A.’s Cagle has pushed forward, trying to band together as many jurisdictions behind a five-year waiver extension as possible. He even got Becky Shipp, a former Senate Finance staffer who was one of Family First’s foundational architects, to lobby for the waiver extension in her new role at a D.C.-consulting firm.

In so doing, Cagle has put his political capital on the line in a very public way for an effort that may fail. But as he sees it, he has little choice. This summer DCFS estimated that it would cost the agency $200 million if it was forced to abandon the waiver, resulting in staff reductions.

“A Title IV-E Waiver extension is critical,” Cagle said in a statement e-mailed to The Chronicle of Social Change. “States like California, Florida, Ohio and others rely on these waivers to fund services and supports beyond just foster care — services to help keep children safe and out of foster care in the first place. Now that Family First is the law of the land, more time to transition from the waiver is key to ensuring continuity of care for our most vulnerable children, and preventing disruption of services.”

While Cagle’s staff declined to offer a deeper interview, conversations with potential and secured partners show how unsure the waiver extension enterprise is.

In California, the six other counties that currently have waivers “desire an extension,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association, which represents the interests of the state’s 58 county child welfare agencies. Those counties are: San Diego, Sacramento, Alameda, Santa Clara, Sonoma and San Francisco.

Trent Rhorer is the executive director of San Francisco County’s Human Services Agency, which oversees child welfare. Rhorer is most concerned about losing the flexibility that he has come to enjoy under the Title IV-E waiver.

“For me the money is certainly a factor, but Family First is not a panacea, and not nearly as flexible as what we have under the waiver,” he said.

When asked if he was missing an opportunity for more comprehensive federal reforms by pushing for the waiver, he said: “It’s not my role. I am running a county human services department that has been very effective. I want to see that continue… It sounds very self interested. But I guess it is. It’s my job.”


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Across the country, Cagle’s IV-E waiver push has found warm reception in Florida, a state that has largely privatized its foster care system and where many tout the Title-IVE waiver as a resounding success.

“I can say that Florida is absolutely on board with California,” said Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, the trade association representing the state’s private child welfare providers.

“This is what frustrates me. You know what they say, ‘the states are the laboratory of democracy.’ Florida has proven that having flexible funding ­– not one size fits all coming from Washington – works,” Kelly said. “We have proven that using flexible funding can dramatically improve outcomes for children and families, yet Washington did not take that into consideration when they passed FFPSA [Family First].”

Beyond Kelly, Florida’s legislature is also on board. In September, Kathleen Peters, a state representative, sent federal Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar a letter asking for an extension.

“I have concerns about the timeline that is included in FFPSA [Family First],” Peters wrote. “It is an aggressive approach and would undermine the effectiveness of the efforts that are already in place and working.”

New York City’s child welfare agency, which has used its waiver to enhance foster care services, is on the fence about L.A.’s push on waiver extension.

“We haven’t formally signed on to it, and we haven’t formally taken a position about extension of waiver authority, but we are very concerned about the end of our waiver,” said David Hansell, commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, in an interview last month.

When asked if there was any downside to pushing legislation to extend the waivers, Hansell said:

“There certainly is a significant price tag associated with it, so you could argue it could mean competition with other federal investments. But in itself, no. I don’t think there is any downside. But it’s not a zero sum game at the federal level, so we and everybody have to weigh it against other things we may be advocating to Congress for funding for.”

Mark Mecum, CEO of the Ohio Children’s Alliance, which represents child welfare service agencies in the state, said he hasn’t seen any significant movement or interest in pushing for federal legislation to extend the waivers. Since 1997, 18 counties have experimented with the program, according to Mecum, and many are concerned about how they will cope with Family First.

“FFPSA [Family First] is the law of the land,” he said. “Given the inability of advocates to change the main blueprint of the bill [during the legislative process], it doesn’t seem like there is a ripe opportunity of extending waivers. I am hopeful that it does happen. But given experience of politics behind FFPSA, it doesn’t seem likely.”

If Mecum is correct, all Title IV-E waivers will expire on Sept. 30, 2019. The following day, Family First goes into effect.

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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 192 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.