Child Welfare Advocate Angie Schwartz Leads in Opposition to Family First Act

Last week, several prominent California child welfare experts expressed grave concerns about the Family First Prevention Services Act, ­pending federal legislation that would dramatically change how foster care is paid for.

During a 90-minute webinar, representatives from the California Department of Social Services, the County Welfare Directors Association, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the John Burton Foundation and Social Change Partners called for a series of substantive amendments to the bill.

The webinar is the latest in a slugfest between supporters of Family First and key administrators and advocates in California, who say that the bill was rushed, will hurt their bottom line and will derail state-level reform efforts already underway.

Family First would amend Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, the federal entitlement that pays for foster care, to allow for time-limited services aimed at preventing the need for foster care. Hitherto, the vast majority of federal dollars only kick in after a child formally enters the system, much to the chagrin of many in the field.

On the other end of the child welfare spectrum, the bill places stricter limits on how federal dollars could be used by states to pay for children living in congregate care settings like group homes.

“We are not trying to kill this bill, but we are trying to amend it,” said Angie Schwartz, policy program director for the Los Angeles-based Alliance for Children’s Rights, in an interview with The Imprint. “Opening up IV-E for prevention services is a good idea, but the way it is done is seriously flawed. We are calling on Congress to slow down and amend this bill.”

Reforming how Title IV-E is spent has long been a goal of child welfare advocates across the country. But Family First has driven a wedge in the child welfare community, with states like California and New York vociferously demanding substantive changes to the legislation. For its part, New York’s Office of Child and Family Services will host a webinar this week to explain the “severe implications” of the pending legislation, which will likely be debated on the Senate floor in September.

CREDIT: The Alliance for Children's Rights; Angie Schwartz

CREDIT: The Alliance for Children’s Rights; Angie Schwartz

In California, Schwartz has emerged as a strident leader in opposition to Family First. A Stanford Law graduate who cut her teeth as a Skadden Fellow at the National Center for Youth Law, Schwartz came to the Alliance in 2010.

During her years with the Alliance – which is more often associated with legal representation of children in L.A.’s foster care system than policy advocacy ­–­ the organization has become a political force. Most notably, Schwartz’s dogged persistence has wrought a dramatic expansion in the services and money made available for California relatives caring for kin placed in foster care.

With Family First, Schwartz has taken her brand of unapologetic advocacy to the federal stage.

During last Thursday’s webinar, Schwartz argued that the bill was too narrow in both the number of people who would be eligible for prevention services and the range of services offered.

“The goal of prevention should be to prevent abuse and neglect, not just prevention of entry into foster care,” Schwartz said during the webinar.

Under Family First, parents would become eligible for prevention services if their children were at “imminent risk” for removal. Prior statutes, Schwartz argued, define this standard at some point after a child has been a substantiated victim of abuse, which she said is too late for the type of services Family First would offer. The bill limits federal funds in this area to mental health, substance abuse and in-home parenting-skill interventions.

But Schwartz said that the services were woefully inadequate for the relatives who, in many cases, will wind up caring for children while their parents are getting treatment.

While the bill anticipates that children who are at imminent risk will be temporarily placed with family members, Schwartz said “there is nothing in Family First that supports the kin caregiver.”

An original “discussion draft”  of the bill included a much broader array of concrete supports that would better serve grandmothers, aunts and other family members. These included  transportation, household goods, housing and utility payments, childcare and respite care.

The official version that debuted this spring in the House of Representatives included a federal match of 50 percent for “kinship navigator programs,” which assists in the referral of kin to existing services.

This lack of adequate supports is especially problematic, Schwartz argued during the webinar, because of a complicated rule about eligibility for children placed with kin.

Under the proposed legislation, “to be eligible for a federal foster care maintenance payment, a child must have been residing in the home of removal in the month of removal or one of the six months prior.” Schwartz reads this as saying that federal foster care eligibility is cut off at six months for kids staying with family while their parents get treatment.

In a short vignette Schwartz used to explain this complicated clause, a boy called Alex enters foster care after child-protective services removes him from the home of his heroin-addicted mother.

Alex’s grandmother agrees to take him in while her daughter gets treatment offered through Family First.

At seven months, the mother relapses. Alex’s grandmother, who has no support, asks the local child-welfare department to open up a formal case. But now, the six-month threshold for foster care eligibility is up, and the state must pay for foster care.

This, Schwartz said, is Family First’s “fatal flaw” because it creates “all kinds of perverse incentives for the states.” The most dangerous being child welfare administrations leaving a child in a relative’s home without any supports.

Schwartz and other leaders on the webinar proposed several amendments to the bill. The proposed changes center on widening the pool of parents eligible for the so-called prevention services and adding more services to that list. In addition, they would do away with any time limit for foster care eligibility while a child is living with relatives.

In sum, the amendments would require a larger outlay of monies envisioned under bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would reduce overall spending.

Congressional staff were unwilling to consider amendments to Family First during the summer, when the legislation passed the House but was blocked in the Senate. They offered assurances that concerns from California and New York could be addressed in the regulation process after passage.

Schwartz doubted that the White House’s Administration for Children and Family (ACF)  had the time or authority to promulgate regulation or guidance sufficient to overcome her concerns.

“ACF does not have time to repeal and issue new regulations with their little time left before the end of this Administration,” Schwartz said in an email. “Many of the changes we have requested implicate the plain meaning of the statute as drafted in the FFPSA [Family First], and therefore, further guidance does not overcome the problems with the language as drafted.”

Insiders expect Family First to get Senate floor time in September.

The question is whether or not Schwartz and her colleagues’ clamoring for costly amendments will cut the bill down.

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