A Critical Next Step for Children and Families: Supporting States in the Transition to Family First

I was born into North Carolina’s orphanage system more than 50 years ago, and have since devoted my entire professional career to child welfare, wanting to give back where I benefited. Through my decades of personal and professional experience, I can say with certainty that we have come a long way in advancing child safety and well-being. The guiding philosophy has evolved from “child saving” to “permanency planning,” and instead of allowing children to languish in the foster care system, we are focused on finding safe and stable homes, and reunifying children back with their parents whenever possible.

Imagine the excitement among the child welfare community when the federal government began to grant Title IV-E waivers, allowing states to invest funds historically restricted to foster care payments for services to support kinship placements and to prevent abuse and neglect in the first place—and ultimately, the need for foster care. In the past two decades, countless children in more than half of the states across the country have benefited from these waivers, which support struggling parents, relative caregivers and help mitigate unnecessary child trauma.

Unfortunately, this progress will come to an abrupt halt on September 30, one day before the enactment of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

Family First: An Important Step toward Child Welfare Reform

The Family First Act is a landmark effort to codify a limited number of these prevention services in law, and make them available to all states without requiring a waiver. By broadening the allowable use of federal funding, children can remain safe with their parents or in home-based foster care, reserving group home care for only those youth with the greatest needs. While Family First is well-intentioned and, for many states, represents a critical step forward, significant challenges remain.

L.A. County child welfare chief Bobby Cagle has been leading a coalition bent on extending the Title IV-E waiver as states brace for Family First.

Pivoting from Title IV-E Waivers to Family First

The law overlooks the need for waiver jurisdictions to be able to transition to a new funding model. This leaves no option but to abruptly end programs that have effectively served children and families—in some cases, for more than a decade.

Without swift action by Congress and the White House to help with this transition, I fear that this has the potential to negatively impact children and families, decrease the number of kinship providers and increase the number of children placed into foster care.

Flawed Assumptions

Family First was built upon assumptions that contemplated a scenario where the lure of new prevention dollars would be so compelling to states that they would immediately take up the option, and that for waiver states, these new prevention dollars would offset what had been directed to waiver activities.

Unfortunately, those assumptions are unlikely to materialize. The law vastly overestimates the ability of states to move quickly to change complex systems that have been in place for decades. According to states polled at a recent Child Welfare League of American conference, the reality is that most are likely to delay Family First implementation, and won’t be drawing down Family First funding for up to two years—particularly in the much-needed area of prevention.

In response, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the State Flexibility for Family First Transitions Act (Senate Bill 107), allowing existing waivers to continue for up to two years as states pivot toward Family First. As a result, extending the waiver will have no negative fiscal impact on non-waiver states (since most are choosing to delay implementation) as has been argued by some well-intentioned national advocacy groups—and a positive impact on waiver states.

Non-waiver states that delay their implementation of Family First will continue to operate under the old Title IV-E funding system until they opt in, leaving them with a steady source of funds. Waiver states, on the other hand, would see substantial and immediate reductions in funding for prevention programs that they already have in place. Absent an act of Congress, funding will be slashed in the nation’s largest jurisdictions, placing millions of children at risk by denying them the availability of critical programming developed over the past decade, yet not contemplated by Family First. In Los Angeles County alone, the drop in funding is estimated at $213 million when the waiver expires in just a few short months on October 1, 2019.

The potential effectiveness and adoptability of Family First has also been undermined by the failure of the federal government to establish the rules and regulations essential to implementing the new law.

Well-intentioned organizations and individuals have begun advocating against a short-term extension of waivers, relying on outdated, misguided assumptions that somehow, a thoughtful, measured and appropriate transition from waivers to Family First undermines the overall implementation of the law. This premise is undermined by the fact that the majority of states will not be implementing Family First for two years.

Waiver jurisdictions would go from a system we know (albeit lacking in some respects) to a system where we hope things will be better once rules and regulations are promulgated. To quote an old military adage, “Hope is not a strategy.”

An Urgent Need for Legislative Action

Without question, we all support our collective goal to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, to prevent unnecessary trauma and to help strengthen families. Our advocacy should be aligned in trying to develop a smooth transition to Family First with a two-year extension for the child welfare systems across the nation that utilize Title IV-E Waiver funding. I, along with many other child welfare advocates and leaders, believe that this is the best way to minimize unnecessary risk to children in the larger child welfare systems, while focusing on effective implementation of Family First as the new law of the land.

Bobby Cagle is the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the largest local child welfare agency in the U.S. He was previously appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal as the director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. 

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