In The Imprint’s article about California agencies opposing the Family First Preservation Services Act, it was noted that the California Department of Social Services and Los Angeles County are both opposing it while also praising it.
But the full rationale for this legislation needs more detail.
The history of this legislation goes back to the 1996-97 debate over the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), in which a key dispute was how to respond to the growing number of children and families in the child welfare caseload affected by substance abuse. The disagreement then led to nothing being done about the problem, except issuance of a report.
We are at risk of repeating that sad history of institutional neglect of children and their families.
We talk about listening to the voices of children in the child welfare system. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by a 10-year-old boy who was reunited with his mother after she enrolled in one of the best family treatment programs in the nation:
When I was five I was put in foster care while my mom was in treatment. My mom worked hard to get me out. It was very scary because I didn’t have my mom or dad. Please make sure other kids don’t have to go through what I did.
The state of California reports to the federal government that 11 percent of its foster care caseload is affected by parental drug or alcohol abuse, a number we have never found anyone to agree is valid in our 20-plus years of working on these issues. Some counties report zero percent; Los Angeles reports 6.4 percent.
These incredible numbers do, however, prove one thing. California, like most states, under-reports and under-responds to the problems of substance use disorders that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.
At a Sacramento meeting about infants who had been prenatally exposed to drugs, my wife and I once had a state child welfare director tell us that substance abuse is “just one more thing” that these families deal with. But it isn’t just one more thing. And the Family First legislation, so carefully crafted by an extraordinary bipartisan coalition of House and Senate legislators, recognizes that if the effects of drugs and alcohol on the lives of children are just one issue on a long list, the lifelong effects on some children will remain very costly in terms of both human lives and public spending.
The Family First legislation isn’t perfect; few bills are. But to have moved this through a Republican House to the Senate was the product of remarkable efforts to take into account a wide variety of congressional, state and provider viewpoints. Those who hope they can alter the bill in its current form are failing to see the opportunity immediately before us.
Moreover, momentum will likely grind to a halt as Congress prepares to adjourn into a ferocious campaign season and then a lengthy transition to a new administration. Delay may mean a lengthy stalemate, and no guarantee for better prospects in the future.
Federal reforms, and California’s efforts to replace congregate care with family-based support and treatment in its Continuum of Care Reform, are extraordinarily important steps forward to improve outcomes for children and families. But we can all agree that the best possible outcome for children and families is to prevent the need for foster care placements in the first place.
Decades of evidence have proven that, by giving struggling parents the substance abuse treatment that they need, children can stay out of foster care and their families can heal. And for this first time since the Title IV-E program was established 36 years ago, states will be able to use the largest source of federal foster care funding to prevent the need for foster care.
As that 10-year-old makes clear, if you ask any child who grew up in foster care what they want from all of us, it is: Please help my parents. This bill crafts a life-changing answer to that question. The tragedy is that it now risks derailment by political miscalculations that assume we can wait another 20 years for a perfect solution.
The bill has been written to reserve significant decisions about provider standards to state governments — which is how most child welfare legislation works — for good or ill. The bill is based on the reality that child welfare waivers are not going to be extended, which California advocates seem to be ignoring.
Are these advocates making decisions based on the best interest of the system rather than the best interest of children? The bill allows states three years, certainly sufficient time for them to do the planning necessary to adapt to the changes of focusing on preventing removal from the family in the first place.
This legislation is an antidote to the continuing polarization between those who focus largely on children and those who focus largely on parents, neither of whom focus enough on families. That is what the Family First Act seeks to achieve, in its emphasis on the services needed by both children and families to enable those children to stay home or return to a safe and stable home.
I write as a policy reviewer with experience at all three levels of government, both elected and appointive. But I also write as one of the parents of two children adopted 22 years ago through the public child welfare system who embody these issues. They are doing well at the moment, but they have struggled mightily, with help from some of the best agencies in the nation—and because of obstacles created by some of the worst.
While my comments are not intended to reflect the views of any of the partners or funders of Children and Family Futures, our work for the past two decades has shown us that legislation like the Family First Act, implemented at federal, state and local levels, can make a real difference in human lives and public spending.
To set this legislation aside because the bill is imperfect is gambling with the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let’s listen to that 10-year old, and the thousands of children like him whose parents have responded and would respond to timely access to effective family treatment.
It’s the right thing to do.
Sid Gardner is the president of Children and Family Futures, a former staff member at the White House Domestic Policy Council, and author of The Middle of Nowhere, a novel about life at a residential treatment program.