Report: New York Should Use Family First Act As “Tailwind” for Curbing Congregate Care

New York’s state government was one of the few to openly oppose the Family First Prevention Services Act, a sweeping new federal law rewriting rules for funding the child welfare system. Among other provisions, the law cuts off funding after two weeks to the least preferential form of placement, known as congregate care or residential care, unless such facilities meet more rigorous quality standards.

But a major child welfare philanthropy in the state is arguing that the law provides “the tailwind needed” to improve New York’s foster care system, with an eye on placing more foster youth in the homes of relatives and improving support for all foster families.

The Redlich Horwitz Foundation, a New York-focused foundation, published a report this week with recommendations on how New York can downsize its use of congregate care placements in favor of more home-based placements. The grant maker laid out a slate of recommendations for the state, including limiting the allowable use of group settings and helping private providers change their business models.

“With some of the highest residential placement rates in the country, New York State and its counties must be proactive … by improving policies and practices to recruit and strengthen foster and kinship families and evaluate its current use of residential care,” the report said.

Redlich Horwitz has long sought to narrow the use of congregate care for youth who have been removed from home due toabuse or neglect allegations. Typically, these are staffed facilities or group homes that hold between seven and 25 foster youth, as opposed to placements in smaller family homes that most of the child welfare field now agree produce better outcomes for foster youth.

If New York City (congregate rate: 9 percent) is removed from the equation, the report said, the rest of New York’s counties place 26 percent of foster youth in congregate care. There are 2,822 New York foster youth currently in these group placement facilities, and about 64 percent are from outside the city.

The national average for congregate care placement is 13 percent, according to federal data from 2015 cited in the report.

“If these counties constituted their own state, it would have the fifth highest percentage of residential placements in the nation,” the report said, referring to congregate care.

The state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) has leveled concerns about the Family First Act since it was introduced back in 2016. OCFS has projected a $200 million negative impact on the state’s child welfare budget as a result of the law, the major provisions of which do not take effect until October of 2019.

Sarah Chiles

Sarah Chiles, executive director of Redlich Horwitz, on how to help residential providers: “Keep them all in business and change what they’re doing. You can do it differently and still maintain the same level of revenue.”

OCFS will have the option to seek a delay in implementing the congregate care rules in Family First for up to two years. But to do so, the state must pass on the new funding offered by Family First for drug treatment, mental health interventions and parenting assistance.

“My impression is that there hasn’t been much analysis done yet on the residential care piece,” said Sarah Chiles, executive director of Redlich Horwitz. “Anything thus far has been based on the status quo of placement practice. And that’s the point of this brief is to say, listen, this can be done.”

Redlich Horwitz recommended that the state limit the range of approved uses for placements in congregate care, to prevent kids from ending up in them solely because of a lack of foster and kinship options. This is in line with what Family First embedded in law: the federal government will only pay for two weeks of congregate care, with certain exceptions for specific groups or emergency needs.

The report estimates that in order to fall in line with the congregate care restrictions in Family First, the counties other than New York City  “might need to move 920 youth currently in group care to kinship and foster families.”

For this, the report estimates, counties will have to develop about 820 new kinship placements — defined as placement of foster youth with near relatives — and 200 new foster families.

“In our experience in traveling around the state, there are very well-meaning county leaders and staff who are hard-pressed to find alternatives” to congregate placements, Chiles said. “They’re reliant on private providers, and what they can provide. And often, they have group homes and residential, so that’s where kids tend to be placed. So there is a real overreliance on residential care … but not because staff and leaders always believe it’s in the best interest of the child. It’s because they have a lack of other alternatives.”

To address that conundrum, the report promotes the idea of assisting private providers in shifting toward more community-based contracted service.

“We likely will not need the same residential capacity” after Family First takes effect, Chiles said. “It would be better to help them change their business models. Keep them all in business and change what they’re doing. You can do it differently and still maintain the same level of revenue.”

Among the slate of other recommendations offered by the foundation:

  • Limiting the range of approved reasons for placement in congregate care.
  • Helping residential care providers expand their operation to include in-home treatment models.
  • Greater use of family search and engagement strategies to build the base of foster and relative homes.
  • Expansion of the state’s Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, which partners with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to hire adoption specialists focused on older teens, children with special needs and sibling groups in foster care.
  • Dedicated staff to support relative caregivers in the immediate weeks after a placement.
  • Involving active foster parents and the faith community more in the recruitment of new foster homes.
  • Creating a “foster-parent support position” tasked with helping foster parents through licensing, recertification and other life adjustments.

OCFS, which received the report in advance of its release and assisted with some data elements, said some of the recommendations are things already underway in New York.

“Many of the recommendations included in the report are part of the state’s ongoing strategies along with localities and not-for-profits to promote and strengthen kinship practices and to continue the state’s strong record of least-restrictive placement,” said OCFS Commissioner Sheila Poole, in an email to The Imprint.

Family First was introduced in Congress in 2016. The bill sailed through the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate as a group of states, including New York, raised objections to it.

This year, Family First became law as an attachment to an 11th-hour, one-month spending bill passed in February to avoid a government shutdown. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to being writing regulations related to the act by this October.

The foundation was founded in 1986 by Catherine Redlich and Robert Horwitz.

Click here to read the entire report.

Redlich Horwitz is a funder of Fostering Media Connections, the parent organization of The Imprint.

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New York wants to use a fund for #FamilyFirst Act prep to prevent youth from aging out of #fostercare, but some counties say the money is already spent or earmarked #childwelfare