Family First Act a Much-Needed Reform in the Heartland

This month, I celebrated 10 years working at Nebraska Appleseed as a lawyer and child advocate. When I started, Nebraska had one of the lowest penetration rates for drawing down federal funding for child welfare of any state the country. We also had one of the highest rates of children removed from their homes.

Sarah Helvey, Child Welfare Program Director at Nebraska Appleseed

Sarah Helvey, Child Welfare Program Director at Nebraska Appleseed.

We identified some needed changes at the state level, and some of those things have happened. But like most advocates around the country, we have known for awhile that the federal foster care financing structure is deeply flawed and reform is needed to move our system toward what we know is better for kids.

The Family First Act, currently pending in the Senate, does not fully “de-link” Title IV-E eligibility from outdated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) income standards. But it does make a number of significant changes that advocates have been seeking for decades.

The Family First Act makes unprecedented investments in prevention services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment. In a state like Nebraska where we haven’t expanded Medicaid, but where parental substance abuse is an adjudicated reason for removal in 37 percent of cases reviewed, this is an important opportunity and can make a difference in keeping families together.

The Family First Act also addresses a longstanding problem of children being inappropriately placed in group care, including those without a mental or behavioral health diagnosis that indicates the need for such placement. We’ve recognized this issue in Nebraska and have taken some steps, but we haven’t had the push to build the array of services and placements needed to truly reform the system and shift the model.

The Family First Act focuses federal resources on children who have serious emotional or behavioral needs and require treatment at a higher level. The bill sets a standard, with the check and balance of the juvenile court, to ensure that children are not unnecessarily placed in group care, and importantly puts continued emphasis on integrating the child’s family into the treatment program to the extent appropriate. Keeping children with and connected to families whenever possible leads to better outcomes and overall well-being.

Our friends in some of the bigger states have raised some concerns about shortcomings of the current bill. These include that the bill does not sufficiently support kinship caregivers and that the bill does not adequately address poverty, which is too often mistaken for neglect. We agree these are critical issues and top priorities, and we should work for further state and federal investments in these areas.

For instance, as state-based advocates, we need to push our states for kinship policies and support to pack around the standards set by the Family First Act. And as child welfare system advocates, we should add our voices at the federal and state level around poverty programs and shine a spotlight on the costs we see every day when children and families get caught up in other systems because they are struggling to meet their basic needs.

From my view here in the Heartland, the Family First Act presents an incredible opportunity to reorient the system toward the principle that children do better in families, and their own families whenever possible. That is the guidestar that should lead us in the decades to come.

Sarah Helvey is the Child Welfare Program Director at Nebraska Appleseed, and currently serves as the Chair of the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center (SPARC) Leadership Council.

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