Family First Act Would Harm California’s Foster Care Reforms, Groups Say

Federal legislation that would mean sweeping changes to the nation’s foster care system will again be up for a vote by the House of Representatives and Senate later today or tomorrow as part of a temporary spending bill.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) fizzled out in the Senate in 2016 amid strong opposition from many voices in the child welfare community in California. That hasn’t changed, even with a slightly modified version of the legislation.

“Despite some modest changes to the current version of Families First, CWDA [County Welfare Directors Association of California] remains opposed to its passage in this form and through this last-minute process,” said CWDA Deputy Executive Director Cathy Senderling-McDonald in an email statement to The Chronicle of Social Change. “The bill continues to have substantive problems that have not been fully addressed by this version.”

Family First Act raises questions in CaliforniaThe current version of Family First was introduced on Tuesday as part of a House Appropriations Bill, and was included in the Senate bill yesterday. It calls for a change to services state child welfare agencies could provide with federal funding. Currently, states can only use Title IV-E funding for foster care payments.

Under Family First, Title IV-E money could also go toward services aimed at preventing the entry of children into foster care if drug abuse, mental health issues or a lack of parenting skills were the cause of child abuse or neglect. Under the new rules, states could spend money on these prevention services for up to 12 months.

Family First would also restrict the federal government’s ability to pay for foster care placements in congregate care settings. The federal government would provide reimbursements for those placements for two weeks, after which states would have to chip in for the cost of stays for placements in group homes, residential treatment centers and shelters.

Family First’s focus on decreasing the incentive to place foster children living in congregate care is a large part of why many state organizations remain opposed to the legislation.

Under the state’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), which began implementation at the start of 2017, California has embarked on a path of limiting the use of group homes, among other far-reaching changes to its child welfare system.

“While well-intentioned, the Families First Prevention Services Act, includes many provisions that would undermine the major reforms we’ve implemented in Los Angeles, thanks to the flexibility of our Title IV-E waiver, as well as California’s Continuum of Care Reform,” said Bobby Cagle, director of Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. “These efforts are well underway and go beyond FFPSA. As a result, we cannot support the bill as currently written.”

The California Department of Social Services, which oversees California’s county-run child welfare system, declined to comment for this story.

The most recent version of the bill put forward as a continuing resolution by the House and Senate seems to address some of the state’s concerns around group-home reform.

It would allow states to put off the changes to financing congregate care for two years, although delaying states would also be prohibited from using the time-limited front-end services.

With CCR, California’s efforts to dial back its use of congregate care was used as a potential model during the drafting of the Family First legislation, according to Senderling-McDonald. But the sudden emergence of the federal legislation would spell significant changes to a state reform effort that is more than a decade in the making.

“(T)he federal bill will require us to revamp processes and protections just being implemented and will open the state and counties to significant costs with little benefit to children and caregivers,” Senderling-McDonald said.

“Such sweeping changes to federal child welfare policy deserve an open and transparent process. The process used in this case has been the exact opposite.”

If you are interested in federal juvenile justice and child welfare policy, read our special issue “Kids on the Hill.” Just hit this LINK

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 266 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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