The traditional flurry of last-minute child welfare policy work from the Administration for Children and Families continued yesterday, with two memoranda on civil legal advocacy, and the lessons of and opportunities created by the coronavirus pandemic.
The first memo extols the importance of civil legal advocacy as an underutilized strategy for helping children and families, then consolidates a handy reference guide for all of the federal funding streams that states or counties might use to pay for it. The need for more and better legal support stems largely from the complex bureaucracy that often exists around eligibility for certain benefits, such as welfare or health care, that can keep families from getting access.
A 2017 study by Legal Services Corporation, the primary provider of government-funded legal assistance in America, found that 71% of low-income families experienced at least one civil legal issue that would benefit from representation, and just over half experienced two. Issues that fall within the realm of civil legal advocacy include evictions, eligibility for public benefits, child support, debt collection, immigration and disability rights.
“When a family is improperly denied access to public benefits on procedural or substantive grounds, or has another unmet civil legal need, legal professionals can assist the family or individual with enforcing their rights or accessing the supports to which they are entitled,” the memo said.
The Trump administration made news within the child welfare arena in 2018 when it, for the first time, permitted the use of the Title IV-E entitlement to help pay for parent and child counsel in child welfare cases, which despite the serious consequences at stake are not part of criminal law. This memo outlines several other federal funding streams that can be used for civil legal advocacy, including: Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant.
The other memo released this week was titled “Emerging Transformed,” and serves as a clarion call of sorts to use the experience of the pandemic as a fulcrum for massive change in serving children and families.
“Our collective goal should be to take this important opportunity to promote lasting, positive, systems change, eliminate racial inequity and disparity in human services, and mobilize around health and healing so that all families and children can reach their maximum potential,” the memo said.
ACF identified two themes on which the pandemic has highlighted needed changes…
“Ongoing conversation and communication between ACF leadership and state, territorial, tribal, and county leaders have emphasized a clear need for more flexibility in how federal funding can be used to better support families, meet immediate concrete needs, and adjust how we provide services and supports.”
Race and Poverty:
“Many ACF programs are reactive in nature with funding for support available, or eligibility triggered, only after a family is experiencing severe difficulty, or trauma to children and families has occurred. This disadvantages families that already confront economic fragility and a host of societal conditions that make life harder and present proven challenges to health and well-being, including the trauma and the impact of racism.”
The memo also recommends that child welfare leadership resist the urge to move back toward “business as usual” as things start to normalize in the U.S., and to engage with parents, caregivers and young people with lived experience on what a post-COVID child welfare system should look like.
“There is a tremendous opportunity to reshape how we as a field conceive of and deliver human services nationally, provide those supports in innovative and more effective ways, and obtain positive outcomes,” ACF said.
Both of the documents, which are formally called information memorandum, were signed by ACF Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson.