The long-awaited federal guidance on child welfare pandemic assistance, which passed as part of the relief package signed by former president Trump in January, is out the door and into the hands of state and local agencies. The need for guidance to land grew urgent as it became clear to advocates and other observers that some states were loathe to act on the legislation alone, and were content to wait for more particular details.
Youth Services Insider has been through the guidance, issued this week by the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, and has spoken with several federal policy experts about it. Here, we try to break down some of the most salient parts in layman’s terms.
Pandemic Assistance for Older Foster Youth
The $400 million enhancement to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood was distributed to states last month. They will have until late 2022 to spend it.
The boost is broken into two parts: $350 million for independent living and $50 million for educational assistance, with 1.5% backed out for the feds to spend on technical assistance support to states.
This guidance makes clear that the money can be used for any allowable expense under the Chafee program (many are listed out), but urges states to use “at least a portion of the funds to facilitate quick and streamlined access to direct financial support for youth who were or are in foster care.”
Translation: Don’t overthink it. Just cut the check.
That had already been stressed as a preference informally by child welfare officials from the Trump administration, and by advocates for foster youth, and is further endorsed here. The guidance goes further in stressing that direct assistance should not be saddled with time-consuming action plans, or requirements that recipients account for their spending with receipts, and that states should not spend a lot of time trying to vet candidates past a simple verification of foster care experience.
“In this time of crisis, a youth’s state of origin should not preclude them from receiving critical services to prevent their homelessness and ability to connect to the social service system in the community where they now live,” the guidance says.
One other point of guidance on the independent living: Costs for driving and transportation are allowed as usual under Chafee, but there is a per-youth cap of $4,000 on assistance in this area.
Educational Training Vouchers (ETV)
Higher Age Limit: From April 1 through September 30, 2021, the age ceiling for both the independent living and educational assistance is 27. Once the clock strikes midnight on October 1, any remaining funds from the Chafee boost can be used only on those who would normally qualify. For independent living that means younger than 23; for education, it’s younger than 26.
Higher Awards: The usual cap of $5,000 per recipient was raised to $12,000, and it will stay that way through September of 2022.
Enrollment: Normally, a current or foster foster youth must be enrolled in college or a training program to qualify for the voucher. But until September of 2021, this support will be available for those who are not currently enrolled.
Allowable Uses: The standard ETV use is limited to the more visceral needs of a post-secondary student: tuition fees, room and board, books. The guidance makes clear that a much broader view of necessary student expenses will be taken through September of 2021 for the money.
Among the allowable expenses mentioned in the guidance: laptops, cell phones, printers, desks and chairs, and products related to WiFi connectivity.
Preventing Foster Youth from Aging Out
Exiting: No child welfare agency can require a youth to leave foster care due to their age until September 30, 2021.
Education and Employment: States with federally approved extensions of foster care from 18 up to age 21 all have a basic requirement that a foster youth is pursuing an education or employment while remaining in care, with some exceptions for disabled youth.
Early in the pandemic, the Children’s Bureau made clear that under the Stafford Act, which pertains to flexibilities in federal rules during an emergency, states could waive those requirements, because … well, it is tough to enforce them when so many schools are closed and it’s dangerous to go to work. But, states did still have the option to enforce the requirements if they wanted to.
This guidance makes clear that this pandemic legislation makes a suspension of those requirements mandatory. No state can kick a youth out of care because of the work and school requirements until September 30.
Re-Entry: The COVID-19 relief bill said that not only must states prevent youth from aging out, but they must also allow anyone who has left foster care during the pandemic to return if they choose. And the guidance makes clear that agencies are expected to be proactive about this.
Per the guidance, states must conduct a public awareness campaign about the option to return for any youth younger than 22 who left foster care this year or in 2020. They are encouraged to go beyond that age range in their public campaign, presumably to find people in their mid-20s who aged out and might need help through the Chafee enhancement.
Another interesting wrinkle: states will be allowed to temporarily use a definition of foster care that doesn’t match the normal federal regulations. The example in the guidance is that a youth or young adult could re-enter care and be financially supported, with case management, but not be “placed” by a foster care agency. This allows a youth who might need some help, but is fine living where they are, to re-enter care without possibly having to give up their current residence to do so.
Paying for foster care: This is one of the most complicated pieces of the guidance, because this provision of the relief is instructing states to allow for more foster care, which comes with more costs.
Federal money for foster care is limited by what’s called Title IV-E eligibility, and the biggest point of criteria is the income of the youth’s parent or parents. If the household income is below the 1996 threshold for poverty, then the child is eligible and the feds share the cost of foster care for her.
For youth who are IV-E eligible, states must continue to share the cost of care, according to the guidance. But for youth who are not IV-E eligible, states can use their share of that $400 Chafee pot to pay for foster care placements.
One thing to watch here: the guidance does say that states must demonstrate they’ve made a genuine effort to verify IV-E eligibility and are paying a state share for as many of these young people as possible. This is particularly relevant for the states that do not operate a federally approved extension to 21, because those states have not ever checked the eligibility of foster youth older than 18.
The Family First Prevention Services Act offers states a 50-50 match on funds to pay for kinship navigators, programs that are meant to serve as one-stop shops to assist relatives and family friends caring for the children of loved ones. One problem: it’s only available for models with efficacy approved by a clearinghouse, and to date, no kinship navigator models have cleared that hurdle.
The pandemic relief bill set aside both the match and the evidence-based requirements through September of 2021. This means that the feds will pay 100% of the costs for any kinship navigators through the fall.
The guidance does impose one very light caveat. The state agency must sign a form attesting to the fact that the navigator program “will be, or is in the process of being, evaluated for the purpose of building an evidence base.”
Angelique Day, a child welfare researcher and associate professor at the University of Washington, said she was disappointed at something not included in the kinship guidance: a requirement to supplement, and not supplant state funding. The guidance delineates all kinds of COVID-related supports that the new funding can be used for, and many states operate kinship navigators that are not accessible to the entire state population, particularly kin in rural areas.
But under this guidance, Day said, states could expand or add services to navigators, but they don’t have to. They could simply do business as usual, and save the state money that would have gone toward it.
The federal boost in this bill was a “beautiful carrot” to get states to build on navigators, Day said. “I wish they had built more of an incentive to get skin in the game from states.”