Imagine being a child protection agency director 20 years ago and making a bold decision to use the flexibility that comes with capped federal dollars to keep kids from entering foster care – instead of using the funding only as intended, to remove children from struggling families and place them into the system.
Imagine launching innovative practices, like identifying kin who could take in the children, or engaging parents and others through Family Team Meetings, or paying for non-traditional services and supports that might stabilize the family in order to keep them together – paying for child care assistance, for example, or school supplies, or even trauma-informed mental health counseling or home renovations for the expanded kinship family. Imagine how many kids’ and families’ lives could be changed.
Now imagine, 20 years later, having to switch back to the old way of doing things. Jettison all of those services, staff and flexibility in favor of using the money the old-fashioned way, to pay for foster care. But only for two years. Then an entirely different funding mechanism kicks into place, and the paradigm shifts again.
Because the Title IV-E waiver program will sunset Sept. 30, 2019 as set forth in the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), our waiver counties could be forced to radically alter their fiscal and programmatic systems not once, but twice, in a two-year period.
Ohio – like many other states – lacks an adequate infrastructure of available, accessible and culturally appropriate evidence-based prevention services that would meet the FFPSA standards; and a robust foster care system that can meet the challenging needs of children currently in residential placements. Group homes and residential treatment centers will need time to achieve accreditation and meet the other FFPSA requirements. This is major reform for a large complicated system that has historically been federally awarded for removing children from their families. This reform is long needed, but states like Ohio, will need the extra time beyond the expiration of waivers on Sept. 30, 2019 to appropriately transition to FFPSA. States, such as Ohio, may find the need to delay implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act until as late as Oct. 1, 2021.
The financial loss to Ohio’s struggling county waiver agencies – which already pay more than half the cost of child welfare in a state that relies more heavily on local funds than any other in the nation, receiving just 5 cents on the dollar from the state – will range from $12 to $18 million per year. But it’s the loss of services to families that will cost far more. These include: foster care diversion services such as staff to conduct family search and engagement, kinship supports such as clothing vouchers and gas cards, family facilitators trained to reduce conflict and bring families together, and case management connecting caregivers and their children to needed counseling services.
Ohio’s county children services agencies and private providers support an urgent Congressional fix to this uncertainty, such as draft legislation being circulated by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The proposed legislation is intended to be consistent with the provision in the FFPSA which allows states up to two years to opt out of implementing FFPSA – by allowing waiver states an option to bridge the waiver to the new federal law during that exact same two-year period. The draft language requires states to develop a transition plan from operating with a waiver to FFPSA, and to ensure that during the transition there will be improved permanency outcomes and reduced emancipation for youth in foster care.
If Congress does not act soon, thousands of children will be at risk of needlessly entering the foster care system, further crippling states like Ohio already struggling to cope with the opioid epidemic. Stripped of the services and supports that allowed them to care for kin, well-intentioned grandparents, aunts and uncles will be unable to take in these vulnerable children.
The result will be more children in an already strained system.
A bridge from the waiver to the Family First Prevention Services Act is not the tall order it’s being portrayed as. In fact, it’s right in line with the law’s intent to divert children from foster care, identify and support kinship caregivers, and reduce reliance on residential care. A fix is in the works, and Congress needs to hear that jurisdictions, such as Ohio, California and Florida support legislation that offers a solution to this looming cliff.
Angela Sausser is the executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio and Mark M. Mecum is the chief executive officer of the Ohio Children’s Alliance.