Grantmakers Call on Feds to Fund Better, but Time-Limited, Foster Care

Two major foundations called today for a restructuring of federal child welfare funds aimed at improving foster and kinship care, limiting the amount of time that federal funds can be spent on them for any one youth, and ending certain federal spending on group care.

Today the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) and St. Louis-based Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative released a paper calling for significant changes to federal child welfare financing. The proposal focuses on improvement in four areas: permanence, family foster care, the child welfare workforce, and access to services.

The paper, “When Child Welfare Works,” bemoans the “arcane federal financing structure that fails to support or provide incentives for the best practices we now know are essential to improve the well-being of children.”

“Federal funding should only go towards supporting what the science tells us is best practice,” said Patrick T. McCarthy, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in an interview with The Chronicle.

At a policy briefing held in Washington, D.C. for advocacy groups, researchers, practitioners, Capitol Hill staff and others, several speakers and panelists discussed the proposed changes. Key topics of discussion included the paper’s recommendations around eligibility, congregate care and foster care time limits, such as:

  • Limiting federal foster care reimbursement under Title IV-E to 36 months per child (over the child’s lifetime).
  • Elimination of Title IV-E funding entirely for shelter care, as well as for group care for children younger than 13.
  • A 12-month limit on congregate care funding for older youth.
  • Eliminating entirely the concept of income eligibility requirements for IV-E reimbursement.

Several panelists acknowledged that many of the changes would be difficult to accomplish and would likely be met with resistance from some residential care providers.

There is still a place for residential services, which can be a safe environment for youth who might otherwise be on the streets or trading sex for shelter, said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of New York nonprofit Children’s Village, which contracts with New York City to provide both residential and community-based services.

The role of residential needs to be “right sized,” Kohomban said, and part of a larger array of options, including community-based services and foster parents who have the resources needed to support young people.

“Residential care must be the emergency room for effective intervention to help a child during extreme crisis that places the child or others at risk of harm,” said Kohomban. “As with a typical emergency room, treatment and discharge must be expedient.”

Judge William A. Thorne, retired from the Utah State Court of Appeals, underscored the importance of another report recommendation: Continuing payments for foster parents for a limited time while children receive out-of-home care. This change would allow more youth to return to their previous foster homes after treatment, instead of forcing resource-strapped foster parents to fill “empty rooms” with new children.

“We can’t treat foster families like hotel rooms,” said Thorne.

Other key recommendations focused on strengthening the child welfare workforce and expanding quality family foster care (including kinship caregivers).  The paper calls for:

  • More flexible licensing standards for kinship placements and a requirement that all children be placed in licensed homes.
  • Changes in the way “case work” and “overhead” are defined and reimbursed, so that agencies can receive reimbursement for a broader array of support activities, such as non-clinical counseling of families.
  • An increased tax credit for foster families caring for youth who are over age 12, are siblings, or are difficult to place.
  • Allowing child welfare workers to receive educational loan forgiveness after 4 years (instead of 10).
  • Allowing current funding streams to cover better training of child welfare investigative staff.

“Our workforce is demoralized now because we are compliance-driven instead of relationship driven,” said  Anne Marie Ambrose, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. She suggested that increased flexibility in areas like licensing could help agencies do their work better, such as by allowing for more kinship care placements.

The paper also includes several recommendations for increasing access to services, including requiring joint planning between state child welfare and Medicaid agencies and reconfiguring and providing greater accountability around current federal funding streams like the Social Security Block Grants and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The suggested reforms have the potential to be revenue neutral, but McCarthy cautions that any savings need to be combined with targeted reinvestment.

“If all we do is reduce investment in deep end services, without reinvesting in supports and services families need, children will be harmed,” McCarthy said.

In order to increase the likelihood that these ideas will take hold, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its partners plan to schedule a series of in-depth dialogues about them.

A slate of child welfare-related legislation has been introduced or floated in recent weeks, including a bill to restructure adoption incentives that passed the House today.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has introduced a bill that would cut off foster care funding reimbursement under Title IV-E after 15 days for children under 13 who are placed in congregate care, a proposal similar to the Casey report.

Foundations are precluded from supporting or opposing specific legislation, but Children’s Village supported the legislation in a letter of support sent to the senator.

“The notion of aligning the federal financing structure with best practices is what we should be going for, and there are a number of representatives and senators who are interested in taking up this challenge,” McCarthy said.

Another Casey entity, Casey Family Programs (CFP), has worked with the Brookings Institution in recent months to foster discussion on how to make federal financing more flexible, to enable states to spend more on family preservation services and less on foster care if they chose to do so.

Lisa Pilnik, JD, MS, is a freelance writer, consultant, and co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm.

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  1. ALmost every one of these recommendations have been “on the table” for the past ten or so years. It is good that: 1. they have not been forgotten in that that are principled in sound best practices, and 2. That some legislation at the Federal level has begun to be framed to achieve some of the targeted goals. As an industry, I hope we will not lose sight of this much needed reform.

  2. As a Kinship Advocate in the State of Michigan, this stands out to me [More flexible licensing standards for kinship placements and a requirement that all children be placed in licensed homes].
    There will always be those Kinship Families who step in to remove the children to avoid further harm instead of waiting for Child Welfare to do their job. Under the current guidelines-those families are not title !V-E eligible, and do not fall within the the criteria of becoming licensed. Their only recourse is to seek guardianship on their own to protect the child and act in their behalf. Hundreds of thousands of families are in this situation throughout our Nation. The families remain unsupported, untrained and struggling to survive. These are the families that policy makers need to address so that the children can remain in their homes. Yes, a more flexible standard of licensing should be considered, but so should Federal/State policies be adapted to include all children in care.

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