L.A. County Board of Supes Pushes for Changes to Family First Act

At its meeting yesterday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion that would endorse making changes to a recently unveiled piece of national legislation seeking to dramatically reduce reliance on group home placements and to increase the ability of states to use child-welfare dollars on prevention services.

According to the motion, introduced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Family First Prevention Services Act (currently known as HR 5456 and also called the Family First Act) could undermine California’s own efforts to reduce group home placement through its Congregate Care Reform initiative, end federal funding for some current programs and make some children ineligible for federal foster care benefits.

The Family First Act recently passed through the House of Representatives and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

“While Los Angeles County agrees with the intent and the goals of HR 5456, there are a number of provisions that will restrict the County’s ability to effectively serve abused and neglected children,” the motion reads.

The motion from Ridley-Thomas recommends sending California Senators Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D) a letter requesting more time for state stakeholders to weigh in on and help amend the Family First Act during discussion in the Senate. All of the Supervisors expressed support for sending the letter.

The bi-partisan, bi-cameral support that the Family First Act has received “is unprecedented,” Ridley-Thomas said. But the positive aspects of the bill, he said, did not outweigh the risks it carried for California’s own reform plans.

Said Solis, who previously served as Secretary of Labor for the Obama Adminstration, “sometimes you get unanimity … and sometimes you get sausage.”

Family First is also opposed by the state agencies and associations representing county social service agencies in both California and New York, and the county association in North Carolina.

With 62,148 children in its care as of January 2016, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, California has more children in foster care than any other state. Los Angeles County is the state’s largest child-welfare system, with 20,982 children.

Opening up Title IV-E funding to be used for preventive mental health and substances abuse services, as well as parenting skills programs, would “make a remarkable difference in the lives of children who truly are safe remaining in their homes once their families receive services,” the motion said.

However, the Ridley-Thomas also wrote about ways that the federal bill’s details could be detrimental to county efforts. The eponymous preventive services it offers are limited to twelve months. “This is simply not enough time to treat addiction and mental illness,” he wrote.

Finally, there is the strain it would put on the county to recruit more foster families than it is already trying to recruit in an effort to move further from congregate care.

“HR 5456 provides no new funding for foster parent recruitment and support, yet expects us to drastically reduce the use of congregate care,” he wrote, specifically citing the bill’s section 202 that states, “a shortage or lack of foster family homes shall not be an acceptable reason for determining that the needs of the child cannot be met in a foster family home.”

As the Youth Services Insider has documented, the current version of the act approved by the House has evolved significantly after much discussion.

In approving the motion, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is adding its name to a considerable list of California advocacy organizations that have expressed reservations about the latest version of the bill, including Public Counsel, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and California’s Department of Social Services.

Many of California’s child advocates stress that the Family First Act’s goals are in line with their own efforts to craft a child-welfare system that provides more preventive services to vulnerable children and families.

However, as Ridley-Thomas’ motion mentions, many are concerned the bill would too narrowly restrict the type of preventive services that would be eligible for federal funding and that the terms for out-of-home placement with the act are too limited, conflicting with reform efforts already underway with California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) which is supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2017.

With CCR, policymakers are already working at the county and state level to reduce the use of group homes and increase the reliance on family-like settings for children.

Under the slate of CCR reforms introduced in a bill last year, group homes would be phased out in favor of short-term residential treatment centers (STRTCs), which would offer short-term, specialized and intensive treatment only to children with demonstrated need. Under Family First, federal funding for these programs could be limited due to the bill’s more medically oriented emphasis for group care.

Angie Schwartz of the Alliance for Children’s Rights explained that CCR was the product of four years of conversations with advocacy groups, the California State Department of Social Services, foster care providers, attorneys, probation departments and policy makers.

“California has sort of had this conversation, and made those investments and is in the process of making those investments,” Schwartz said. “A lot of what’s in the Family First Act undermines those [CCR] efforts.”

FFA increases funding available to states for some prevention services by opening up the use of federal Title IV-E child-welfare funds on mental health services, substance abuse counseling and parenting classes, as Ridley-Thomas mentioned. But it pays for those services by delaying the federal subsidies provided to states for adoption assistance, potentially putting millions of dollars in state and county money in jeopardy. According to advocates, this delay shifts $720 million in costs to the states.

Public Counsel’s Martha Matthews explained that California has already made major strides in shifting the focus away from congregate care in child protection, so the youth who are still being served by it tend to have special needs and are the hardest to place in foster homes.

“California’s basically scraping the state for more foster homes,” Matthews said. “So if you’re a state that hasn’t really tried to do that yet, [Family First] might actually seem great. ‘The feds are going to give us more money to move kids from group care to foster homes.’”

“The problem is California isn’t one of [those states]. And California is huge.”

This story was updated on June 29.

Click here to read all of The Imprint‘s continuing coverage of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

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