A bill to help states implement the Family First Prevention Services Act was included in the end-of-year spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump just before the holidays. New York City, home to one of the largest ongoing federal child welfare waiver experiments, expects that law to pay off big.
The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) anticipates that the Family First Transition Act law will direct between $40-50 million to the agency, perhaps more depending on decisions made by the state-level child welfare agency.
“Passage of the Family First Transition Act is an important step for child welfare nationally, and one that will enable New York City to sustain improved foster care outcomes achieved through our federal waiver,” said ACS Commissioner David Hansell, in a statement issued to The Imprint. The waiver “has helped us in our mission to promote stability, permanency and well-being for children.”
The Family First Act, signed into law in 2018, expands the Title IV-E entitlement – which currently only funds foster care and adoption services – to include efforts at preventing the use of foster care in some child welfare cases. This will be known as “IV-E Prevention,” and the list of fundable services is limited to substance abuse treatment, mental health interventions and in-home parenting programs.
The law also limits IV-E funds for placing foster youth in group homes and other “congregate care” settings. States will only be able to tap into IV-E for two weeks of funding for those placements, with exceptions for those that serve pregnant/parenting teens, youth older than 18, youth at risk of sex trafficking, and youth with acute health needs.
Both the front-end funds, and the group care limits, took effect in October of this year. But states were given the ability to delay implementation until 2021, and New York was one of 39 states that took a delay.
Some of the greatest wariness around Family First came from states with federal waivers to the existing rules around Title IV-E funding. Under those waivers, which all ended in October, state and county systems were allowed to use IV-E funds outside of foster care payments and adoption subsidies.
New York City’s waiver, entitled Strong Families NYC, used federal flexibility to lower the caseloads of foster care caseworkers by hiring more workers as the number of youth in the city’s foster care system continued to decline. A recent evaluation of Strong Families by the research organization Chapin Hall found that the average length of stay in care declined by nearly two months since the waiver began.
With the waiver expiring, ACS was among the agencies lobbying for some transitional help as it prepared for the Family First Act. That help came with the spending bill, signed by Trump just days after the House voted to impeach him.
The transition provisions allow states with IV-E waivers to quantify the amount they have lost as a result of the waiver’s end, and then recoup 90 percent of that total this year. Next fiscal year, the reimbursement for losses will drop to 75 percent.
ACS has not arrived at a definitive loss calculation, but estimates it will draw somewhere between $40 and $50 million in waiver reimbursement this year.
Strong Families NYC “is a proven program to reduce the number of children in foster care” said U.S. Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.), one of the Family First Transition Act sponsors, in a statement issued to The Imprint. “Chalk one up for good government.”
The Family First Transition Act also includes a $500 million fund to be distributed across states, and the state child welfare agencies will have discretion on how to allocate those dollars. New York City is home to about half of the state’s foster youths, but the Office of Children and Family Services will decide how to parcel out the state’s share of that pot. A recent projection by the Child Welfare League of America puts New York’s allocation at about $21 million.
The act’s third provision eases up the rules around what foster care prevention services can be paid for under the new law. Initially, half of a state’s selected prevention services would have had to meet the highest threshold of evidence in terms of effectiveness and impact; that rule is delayed for several years under the new legislation.