Foster Youth and Advocates React to Proposed Families First Act

Foster Youth in Action, a national foster youth advocacy organization, hosted a webinar just before the holidays wherein youth and advocates shared their thoughts on the proposed Families First Act and other policy issues.* 

The act is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance by Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and is currently at the forefront of national conversation as the largest federal child welfare legislation package since 1980.

Matt Rosen, the executive director of Foster Youth in Action (FYA), moderated the policy discussion, with participants representing a range of organizations such as Social Change Partners, Youth Law Center, California Youth Connection and Florida Youth SHINE.

Webinar panelists provided an overview of group homes, explained changes to state and federal policy, provided advice on creating advocacy programs and on how to involve youth in related advocacy and discussions.

Sean Hughes of Social Change Partners, a consultancy firm focused on child welfare policy, led the discussion around emerging federal policy.

“Group homes are a hot topic right now in D.C.,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes, the Families First Act has two main goals, the first aimed at increasing early intervention to reduce foster care entry and the second focused on preventing prolonged stays in group homes for foster youth. The act intends to accomplish these goals by creating new funding streams and increasing group home oversight.

Group homes belong to one of two categories, Hughes said, therapeutic or non-therapeutic, both of which will be affected by the Families First Act.

The proposed legislation will cut off federal funding to non-therapeutic group homes after a youth is there for 14 days, except for those housing disabled youth, pregnant and parenting teens, siblings and those facilities designated as independent living programs. For group homes not providing one of the aforementioned services, these cuts in funding will essentially shut them down or force states to pay the full cost of sustained operations, Hughes said.

For therapeutic group homes—those meant to provide youth with mental and emotional help and regularly referred to as short-term residential treatment centers—the Families First Act will increase oversight to ensure proper use and mandate further evaluations as to the necessity of the placement.

The further evaluation proposed by the Families First Act takes the form of a “needs assessment” and court review. The needs assessment determines whether a residential treatment center is the right placement by evaluating the youth’s individual needs. Biannual permanency hearings are used to create plans for a youth’s permanent placement and will include a review of the assessments.

The act seemingly seeks to address a major complaint by advocates that therapeutic group homes are often used as long-term placement options for youth who don’t need them.

While the bill may have many potential benefits for youth, advocates are concerned that the bill is doing little to change the system itself. Advocates also point out that the act forces youth out of group homes while providing no alternatives or increased foster parent recruitment strategies to ensure former group home residents have stable places to live.

Group home reform is also in the works at the state level. Alice Bussiere, a staff attorney at Youth Law Center, based in San Francisco, Calif., outlined some of these state-based changes.

In reference to group home placement, Bussiere stated, “Many are there [in group homes] by default, just because nobody’s found another place,” which is a major point in most state-based changes. In Maine, for example, the state government partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop more family-based care options and shift away from group homes.

Currently, Washington, Hawaii and Oregon have the highest rates of family-based care. According to Bussiere, the reason is, “Nothing really in specific, except they all really value families.”

Advocates and youth from Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) and California Youth Connection (CYC) discussed their approaches to creating policy agendas and proposing statewide changes. Both highly stressed the need to include youth voices.

FYS described some of the major concerns with group homes in its state, Florida, many of which were echoed by CYC in California. The issues mentioned included high crime and arrest rates, little to no privacy and extreme punishments for “things that normal youth do.”

Joy, a youth advocate from CYC, addressed how to involve youth in discussions around group homes, a need recognized by all of the panel’s participants. Joy said that professionals need to “make sure that the environment is youth-friendly, and that conversations aren’t going above youths’ heads.”

In strategizing to propose group home changes, advocates from FYS stressed the need to be “very intentional” with approaches, creating a strategic plan that is regularly re-examined. For example, FYS worked to increase the use of data-driven approaches that challenge subjective notions and assumptions gained from one-time visits to group homes, which are common among politicians creating legislation.

For future dialogue, panelists recognized the need to open up more conversations around alternatives to group home placements, stressing it as a major concern in group home reform.

A recording of the webinar and other resources are available on FYA’s website.

*This story has been updated. An earlier version of the story suggested that webinar participants felt youth voice had not been included in the development of the Families First Act, which was incorrect. 

Matt Hartman is a graduate of UCLA, a child welfare advocate, freelance writer and nonprofit consultant. Matt primarily writes about social justice and political issues, with a special interest in child welfare. Follow Matt on Twitter @mattbhartman.

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  1. My name is Crys O’Grady, a law student at the University of Washington School of Law and advocate for youth, in and from, foster care.

    I am in support of the “Families First Act.”

    Just a few points of clarification:

    Youth leaders, who have experienced foster care, have been meeting with Senate Finance Committee staff for approximately one year to discuss various issues concerning child welfare and the impact of the current federal finance structure on the quality of foster care placements.

    Currently, federal child welfare finance structures only allow a very limited amount of funding to implement programs focused on prevention of unnecessary entry into foster care, long-term stays in foster care, and reunification services.

    In the last few years, a waivers program was enacted to test out how effective a restructuring of funds could be for State child welfare systems. Waivers provided states with flexibility to use federal funds for prevention and runification services. This waiver program is due to expire. Without legislation, waiver states in the program will likely lose this flexibility to ensure funding for a broad array of services to help children and youth in foster care.

    The work of youth leaders has manifested in proposed federal legislation titled the
    “Families First Act”, expected to be introduced into the Senate by the Senate Finance Committee in January.

    The Families First Act addresses the financial structure of child welfare to allow more funds to be used toward prevention of unnecessary entry into foster care and long term stays in foster care. The provision regarding congregate care facilities is disincentive to place youth in foster care when they do not need to be placed there, in the hopes of placing a youth in a family based setting. Family based settings are shown to improve outcomes for youth in foster care. However, the Act still allows placement in congregate care facilities for youth who need the specialized treatment that such a placement can offer, but adds additional overight to these placements to make sure that youth are not forgotten about and left in long-term congregate care without alternative placement considerations.

    While every piece of legislation has potental areas for improvment, the “Families First Act” shows a great step in reevaluating how child welfare is funded and places a stronger emphasis on monitoring placement options and bettering outcomes for youth in care.

  2. My name is Stefanie Magness, Executive Director of the Coalition of Residential Excellence (formerly Coalition for Residential Education). The Families First Act proposal is significant because while it encourages federal dollars to be used on prevention services and encourages the placement of children in foster care to be in the most family like settings and appropriate to their special needs, it discourages the use of residential programs except in more treatment like settings.

    The bill while supporting some types of residential group care, places the most emphasis on using group care as a last resort and in a treatment like setting. Our member programs provide quality care in family like community settings are being placed in the category of residential treatment programs. There lacks a designation for our types of community programs.
    We believe children will be ultimately hurt by this bill if implemented without consideration for programs that fall in between a foster home and a residential treatment. Our programs are education focused, encourages family engagement, encourages extra-curricular activities and most are faith based. They are producing results but are not residential treatment programs.
    Stefanie Magness
    Executive Director
    Coalition of Residential Excellence (formerly Coalition for Residential Education)

    • I am a recently licensed foster parent in the state of Idaho, Region 1- Sandpoint. Our local group home (Kinderhaven) is currently full, yet I have not received even one call yet for a child or sibling group in need of a home. Something is wrong here- the state should be calling foster parents first and group homes second, not the reverse. This legislation is what is needed in order to keep kids out of group homes that would be better served by having an actual family.

  3. My Name is Matt Rosen – I organized and facilitated this webinar in my capacity as the Executive Director of Foster Youth in Action.

    While I appreciate your commitment to raising up youth voices, the article’s title is misleading, and distracts readers from the purpose of the webinar – highlighting youth action to address group home issues at the state level through advocacy at the policy and implementation levels.

    While policy consultant Sean Hughes did provide an overview of the proposed federal Families First Act, and listed its strengths and concerns, I directed him to so in order to set some federal context prior to the state-focused presentations by youth led groups and the Youth Law Center later in the webinar.

    Actual reactions to the Families First Act were very limited – which was not surprising given that our focus was on state level work. Given the immediacy of this issue nationally,
    it’s important for readers to know that the three reactions by advocates about
    the Families First Act made on the webinar were positive. One youth advocate stated at 37:13 in the recording that they are “excited” about the bill’s “focus on youth being in the least restrictive setting.” Another noted that they are “grateful that there is federal legislation” at 38:20 in the webinar recording. The only other reaction to the proposed Act was by a participant at the end of the webinar who encouraged both panelists and other participants to take action to SUPPORT the bill.

    The webinar is available for review by the public at I encourage readers who are interested in this topic and want to hear the perspectives of youth on congregate care to check it out by clicking on the link above.

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