The House Ways and Means Committee dropped a bipartisan bill today that would prevent youth from aging out of foster care during the coronavirus pandemic and provide additional federal cash to state child welfare agencies.
The hope among legislators and many child welfare advocates is that some bundle of provisions from this bill and a Senate version introduced in July will make it through if and when another stimulus package is agreed to. The Senate plan centered on an infusion of $2 billion for state agencies, with relatively few strings, while the House took a more tailored approach on its version.
“America’s most vulnerable children and families face unique challenges even in normal times, but the coronavirus crisis presents even more obstacles to overcome,” said Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee.
Here is a breakdown of the key aspects of the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act.
The U.S. Children’s Bureau moved fairly quickly to ease the path for states that wanted to help youth on the brink of aging out of foster care, but it also made clear that legislation would be necessary to actually extend federal funding to keep young people in care past age 21. Almost every state has some form of extended care beyond 18, and just over half of states have a federally matched extended care program for young adults through age 21.
A few bills have codified permission for states to extend foster care beyond 21 during the pandemic with federal help. This is the first that actually makes that extension mandatory for any state with a federal match on extended care – such a state would have to allow young people to remain past age 21 until coronavirus is under control.
It also mandates that young people who have aged out since this all began back in February can come back into care if they like, and that agencies must make a deliberate effort to notify them about this option.
No Match Necessary on Family First Act
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which passed in 2018, allows states to seek federal approval to use the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement for approved services aimed at preventing the use of foster care in some child welfare cases. Heretofore, the entitlement was restricted to foster care and adoption costs.
The plan for the first few years of Family First was that states would have to pay half of the costs for those prevention services. This bill would temporarily wipe that out and put 100% of the costs in the federal bucket.
This provision runs through September of 2021, so it is likely to benefit only the handful of states that have already received approval for prevention services. Most states have elected to delay implementation of the law through 2021.
The bill also waives the requirement that kinship navigator programs – one-stop centers for assistance to and referrals for relative caregivers – are approved by the Prevention Services Clearinghouse. This is big, because not a single kinship navigator program has received approval, and this change would allow dozens of existing versions to support kin during the pandemic with 100% federal funding.
Boost on Independent Living and College Aid
Each year, the Chafee Program includes about $140 million for independent living programs serving older foster youth, and another $45 million for educational and training vouchers to help current and former foster youth attend universities or vocational programs.
In an effort to help stabilize the housing and living expenses for young people whose postsecondary plans have been blown up by the pandemic, this bill would put an extra $350 million into independent living and $50 million for the vouchers. The maximum voucher award is also more than doubled through fiscal 2021 – from $5,000 up to $12,000 – and the age ceiling is raised to 27.
“This bill will help thousands of young people who had to evacuate colleges, who lost jobs, who lost health insurance, and who are running low on food and money for rent,” said Patrick Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages, a multistate child and family services provider. “Congress has got to include this bill in the COVID-19 relief package they’re negotiating right now.”
Home Visiting Rules Relaxed
The Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program provides hundreds of millions to states to help support pairing new and expecting parents with trained professionals to support them. This strategy is heavily reliant on the close relationship of home visitors to parents, fostered mostly by in-person visits to the house.
That model is obviously derailed by the heightened risk of coronavirus spread that comes with meeting indoors. This bill temporarily eases the federal regulations on home visiting to permit virtual visits when they are necessary for health reasons.