Family First Act, Proposed Overhaul of IV-E, Dies as Senate Adjourns

The U.S. Senate adjourned this afternoon, and in doing so ended any chance for the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016, a bill that would have dramatically altered the federal IV-E entitlement, the largest conduit of funds to states for child welfare services.

Family First was conceived of by Senate Finance Committee leaders Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and paired two legislative objectives: increasing federal investment in services aimed at preventing the need for foster care, and curbing federal spending on congregate care.

Wyden and Hatch negotiated a bill with House Ways and Means leadership that used a delay in new federal spending on adoption assistance to make the act a cost-neutral proposition. Ways and Means marked Family First up in June, and it passed in the House the next week.

The hope was to “hotline” Family First in the Senate before the summer recess, but the bill started to meet opposition from state and county leadership in California, New York and Washington. Ultimately, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) placed holds on the bill.

The Senate will return for a lame duck session after the election, but it will be too late for Family First. When the new fiscal year begins on Saturday, it will wipe away the $500 million offset provided to the bill through the delay on adoption assistance funding.

So what comes next in terms of federal child welfare policy? The Congressional focus in fiscal year 2017 will likely be on the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which was established as part of the Affordable Care Act and needs an extension. Two other big youth- and family-related items up for reauthorization: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

You might see movement on some more modest pieces of legislation, like the proposal to add foster youth to a federal work tax credit started for veterans. But as far as broad finance reform, the guess from Youth Services Insider is that it could be awhile.

Youth Services Insider could see both of Family First Act’s architects, Wyden and Hatch, continuing to pursue reforms on their own. Before Family First came together, Wyden was pushing a much more expensive bill that provided a much wider array of time-limited services to help families at imminent risk of entering foster care, the same standard that found its way into Family First.

Hatch’s priority is curbing congregate care funding. As far back as 2013, he has previously introduced legislation that would forbid states to use federal money in the placement of a youth under age 13 into congregate care, while setting a one-year limit on funds for older youths.

“Chairman Hatch remains committed” to ensuring that “the provisions in the Families First Prevention Services Act – particularly those that would reduce reliance on unsafe and inappropriate group homes – are able to become law,” said Senate Finance Committee Spokesman Aaron Forbes, in a statement provided to YSI today.

Opponents of Family First in California and New York offered several criticisms of the bill, many of which boiled down to a central problem. Child welfare leaders in both states felt their states had already recalibrated their systems around prevention-oriented systems and less congregate care, and a massive shift in federal support would threaten the new ecosystem.

Leadership on the bill sought to assure critics that much could be worked out in cleanup legislation and federal program guidelines. But with a new administration on the way, and the potential for turnover in Congress, that overture was never taken seriously.

The most recent round of federal waivers on IV-E funds expire in fiscal 2019, which is the year that Family First provisions would have taken effect. It seems unlikely now that another major reform will come along until that date is a little closer on the horizon.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.